The Trillion Dollar Promise

Delivering the Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act.

By Si Katara  

Last year’s passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) set the stage for a once-in-a-generation transformation of our nation’s infrastructure. Our industry enters 2022 with a mandate to deliver billions of dollars in improvements amid global supply chain disruptions and historic labor shortages against a backdrop of ongoing COVID-19 variants. How do we implement this ambitious plan under such challenging circumstances? Innovation is a critical component to effectively answering this question.

The American people are counting on us to transform our infrastructure. Antiquated processes and a strained workforce will be key barriers to overcome to prevent a glut of unfulfilled projects. Glimmers of an industry-wide embrace of advanced digital technologies to amplify the existing workforce and help stretch each dollar further will be critical to addressing the accelerated demand this unprecedented investment will generate.

Innovative tools will address the current talent deficit by multiplying what our current workforce can accomplish, and a more modern industry will help attract a new generation of workers in the long term. Broader utilization of advanced digital construction management (ADCM) systems can give policymakers the data to make informed decisions about priorities laid out in the legislation, such as equity and environmental mitigation. 

Such data can measure a project’s utilization of Disadvantaged Business Enterprise contractors and reduce the carbon footprint of the projects themselves. The increased transparency and accountability afforded by advanced digital technologies will also be necessary to navigate the process of securing federal funding. 

Historically, the industry that manages and constructs our infrastructure has been late to adopt technology. Many of the systems currently used in infrastructure construction and management are decidedly not advanced with processes often still paper-based or reliant on monolithic, legacy systems with closed architectures designed decades ago. Now is our opportunity to retire these archaic systems and bring infrastructure construction to the 21st century so the country can reap the benefits.     

According to an analysis by McKinsey, digital transformation can result in cost reductions up to 6%. For a $1.2 trillion program, that means a savings of $72 billion or more. To put that in perspective, just the potential savings alone is more than the $70 billion Congress appropriated in the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. For an industry where projects often face cost overruns of 80% and take 20% longer to complete than scheduled, the efficiencies realized by modernization are critical.  

When the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development implemented a visual-based inspection technology, it saw increased productivity of nearly 30%, the capture of twice as much inspection information, and a greater than 75% reduction in claims on projects using the technology. Increased productivity and fewer claims mean more efficient utilization of workers’ time and taxpayer dollars while increasing project throughput.  

Productivity gains alone will not address the current shortfall of 430,000 workers, which is expected to grow over the next two years, and the substantial retirements anticipated as baby boomers leave the workforce. The IIJA will generate millions of jobs and utilizing technology can help attract young tech-savvy talent and reskill and retain the current workforce. 

Acknowledging the importance of a digital transformation for the industry, the legislation encourages state Departments of Transportation and other project sponsors to adopt “commercially proven digital technologies and processes for the management of construction and engineering activities” and provides eligibility for “systems for infrastructure planning, coordination, construction, maintenance, modernization and management, asset management systems for machines, site equipment, and personnel.” 

Congress also added a provision to the IIJA that designated $100 million in funding to incentivize modernization, further signaling that greater adoption of ADCM systems is a key component to delivering the program ahead. Proven technologies will be a powerful catalyst to accelerate this digital transformation and help the industry strengthen our country’s foundation.

Infrastructure impacts everything from our ability to get from one place to another to the economic prosperity of our nation. Crumbling roads and bridges cost the average American family $63 per week, and our economy could lose $10 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP) and $23 trillion in total business productivity by 2039 without action to repair our infrastructure. This investment stands to leave a lasting impact on future generations, creating resilient, safe and smart infrastructure, but its success relies on modernization. As we bring our roads, bridges, ports and airports into the 21st century, our tools and processes need to modernize as well.

Si Katara is co-founder and president of HeadLight, on behalf of the Coalition for Smarter Infrastructure Investments.