One year after the passage of the historic $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), funds are already flowing, and shovels are flying on a range of public works. That includes traditional infrastructure needs like the recently announced $1 billion project to upgrade and repair the Brent Spence Bridge between Kentucky and Ohio over the Ohio River. It also includes forward-looking projects that recast and expand the way we think about infrastructure in the digital age.
Bipartisan passage after decades of stops and starts was a true legislative milestone. It’s an important response to a pressing need for fundamental maintenance and upkeep of our built environment, which has suffered from neglect and is now being further impacted by the dynamics of climate change.
The BIL includes commitments to modernize and expand rail, improve roads and bridges, improve transit, upgrade airports and ports, and address infrastructure vulnerabilities from climate change and extreme weather events, such as extreme heat and cold, flooding, sea-level rise, and powerful winds. Importantly, it takes an expansive view of what constitutes infrastructure today – and in the future – and provides a broad commitment to expand things like clean and renewable energy production and storage and clean water.
Highlights include a pledge of $66 billion to modernize and expand rail systems, including high-speed rail, the largest investment in rail in half a century. An additional $110 billion is reserved for improving roads and bridges, the most significant investment in these areas since the Eisenhower administration. Also included is funding for improving transit ($89.9 billion), airports and ports ($25 billion), and addressing infrastructure vulnerabilities from climate change and extreme weather events ($240 billion).
In addition, the BIL commits to expanding clean and renewable energy and clean water, with a 10-year extension of investment and production tax credits for renewable energy production and storage.
Vigilance and Foresight Will be Key
The hard work did not end when the ink dried on President Biden’s signature. Ensuring success requires strong leadership and collaboration. Local officials and community leaders must work together with contractors and developers to ensure that projects are completed on time and within budget – and, importantly – resilient and able to withstand unforeseen demands. This means paying attention to details like construction standards and modernizing building codes, which have changed little since they were created in the mid-20th century. Outdated, they fail to address many of the minimum standards that are key to construction projects today.
Even with stronger modern building codes as a baseline, it will be up to all parties to ensure that these projects are built without design and construction defects. For example, a staggering 54 percent of school buildings across the U.S. have major systems needing repair or replacement, including 36,000 school buildings with aging, inadequate, or defective HVAC systems. Those same deficiencies are found throughout the built environment. For new and existing structures alike, construction audits can identify these structural and design weaknesses before an extreme weather event is bearing down.
The completion of a major project is no time for complacency. A third-party post-construction audit is critically important to identify any construction and design defects while the work is still fresh. For example, one of the most common construction defects – and one that can be minimized with enhanced building codes and construction audits – is the faulty design or construction of a building’s envelope or barrier between a structure and the elements.
Preparing for Unknown-Unknowns
Future-proofing our infrastructure requires embracing uncertainty as the new normal. Risks are evolving, sometimes in ways that are unpredictable and not well-understood. Across sectors and project timelines, we must be open to new ways of thinking about infrastructure with a commitment to resilience. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be surprised when our built environment fails to withstand the hazards and demands of extreme weather and climate change.
There’s so much to be excited about with this new commitment to improving our infrastructure. $1 trillion is a lot of money, any way you look at it. But is it enough? Will it fix all of our problems? Will it be administered properly? Will mistakes be made?
If history is any judge, it would be foolish to expect perfection. But the scope of projects already underway or in the works sets the stage for growth, innovation, and improvement to our built environment like we haven’t seen in generations.
Marc Gravely is the founder of Gravely Attorneys & Counselors and is the author of the best-selling book, “Reframing America’s Infrastructure: A Ruins to Renaissance Playbook.” Learn more about this book and purchase it here.