In February, Texas suffered a brutal storm that made international news — an arctic blast knocked most of the state’s power grid offline and plunged millions of residents into darkness. The luckier folks only suffered rolling blackouts and had plenty of water. Others slept in their cars with the motor — and heater — running.
It was the power grid’s lack of preparedness for the harsh weather, not the blast that vaulted Texas to the top of the news feed. And we seem to be having more extreme weather events like that lately — hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, bomb cyclones — all of which batter our national transportation infrastructure (and escalate costs to taxpayers to repair it).
When I was assistant secretary of transportation at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we still thought of infrastructure as mostly “roads and bridges.” But as we Texans learned, it’s also the power grid and the fuel lines feeding it from natural gas plants, wind turbines and nuclear power plants. It’s likewise reflected in the accompanying water storage and transmission failures and other impacts on critical infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) just released its 2021 report card on America’s infrastructure, and the country’s grade went from a D+ in 2017 to a C- in 2021. While that might seem like progress, I’m of the opinion that this year’s grade was on a soft curve and the state of repair of our national infrastructure as a whole remains poor.
ASCE’s 2021 report card looks at 18 categories — from aviation to public parks, from wastewater to inland waterways — rating each for its ability to meet 21st century needs. We should acknowledge the interdependencies of those assets to help us manage them efficiently, but we have to be cautious in trying to solve all of America’s infrastructure problems at one time. While “roads and bridges” is a limited — and incomplete — way of looking at our national infrastructure, targeting different infrastructure areas when it comes to funding has some virtues.
ASCE estimates we’ll need $300 billion over the next decade to raise America’s infrastructure grade to an A. I’d argue that part of that funding should prioritize proactively building resilient transportation assets that better withstand extreme weather events. Typically, research funding focuses on fixing problems that already exist. But as deadly weather becomes more frequent and intense (and shows no sign of abating), the traditional approach to asset management — reactively, as a pothole to fill, rather than using technology that prevents potholes — opens a money pit for taxpayer dollars.
The unpredictability of the future makes the imperative for proactive research all the more necessary, with a focus on building resilient assets that require less post-event repair. Recent experience suggests Mother Nature’s capacity for damaging our transportation infrastructure is limitless. Taxpayer dollars? Not so much.