Peter Moore, P.E., F.ASCE, FACEC
President, Chen Moore and Associates
As published by the Sun Sentinel on April 2, 2022
On Nov. 15, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) into law. The White House has considered this to be “a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness.” As a civil engineer, I give credit to all the politicians involved in creating excitement around infrastructure funding. We can point to this act as only progress, and we can now begin to measure the impact of this investment and, more importantly, we can begin to measure the multiplicative return on investment that is well-documented from past investments. And from what we can measure, a trillion dollars doesn’t go too far.
Despite all the appreciation that I have as a civil engineer and a citizen, the IIJA barely the scratches the surface of our nation’s needs, and if this is the only investment in infrastructure in this generation, the United States will fall even further behind on the world stage. This is evident on a couple of levels.
When the average person hears about a $1.2 trillion investment, it sounds more than sufficient to meet our needs, but in reality, it falls far short. The first example of this shortfall is the fact that, of the $1.2 trillion, only $550 billion is actually new money programmed to be spent on transportation, water and power infrastructure and pollution cleanup. The remainder, more than half, is simply regular annual spending on infrastructure projects.
Drawing on the technical knowhow of its membership, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) produces independent reporting on America’s infrastructure for the benefit of both our decision makers and the average citizen. Every four years, ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure depicts the condition and performance of American infrastructure in the familiar form of a school report card, assigning letter grades based on the physical condition and needed investments for improvement. While this publication produces bite-sized pieces of information that help guide decision making, the accompanying Failure to Act Study provides the economics behind the grades.
Based on the latest Failure to Act Study, the total needs for the nation based on current trends and extended until 2029 are just short of $6 trillion ($5.937 trillion to be exact), while funding levels, inclusive of the IIJA, which was passed after the study was published, are closer to $4 trillion.
Even worse, the Failure to Act Study highlights that, without action, by 2039, failing infrastructure will cost the US $10 trillion in gross domestic product, over 3 million jobs and $2.24 trillion in exports. This further dries up the pool of funds available for investment in not only infrastructure, but any other needs that our country faces. Keep in mind 2039 is only 17 years away, which is less than any current timeframe considered to be a “generation.”
Infrastructure spending obviously benefits engineers, but infrastructure spending has a return on investment that also benefits the greater population. Direct benefactors obviously include material suppliers, equipment manufacturers and construction workers, but secondary impacts push down to those who mine or farm the materials, those who build the equipment, and those who feed, equip and train the construction workers. Overall improvements, particularly to increase reliability, benefit the logistics and manufacturing industries overall. Finally, general benefits to the average person include reduction in commuting, traffic calming and other time benefits. Every dollar invested in infrastructure returns between three and seven times to the overall economy.
We have the needs. We’ve proven the investment pays returns. Thank you, but isn’t it time we say what’s next?
Peter Moore is president and CEO of Chen Moore and Associates, a civil engineering firm specializing in water resources, water and sewer, landscape architecture, transportation, planning and irrigation and electrical, environmental and construction engineering services.