It’s that time of year when schools are wrapping up instruction for the year and final grades are being tabulated after completing final exams. For some, it’s a nerve-wracking moment:
- Can my friend’s son squeak out an additional 0.5 of a point in his final exam to graduate as salutatorian at a local high school?
- Will my nephew, an incoming first-year student at the University of Georgia, keep his GPA above 3.0 so he can get the HOPE Scholarship?
- Will my daughter keep her Zell Miller Scholarship while at Georgia Tech?
Making the Grade
But students aren’t the only ones receiving grades. Both the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Biden Administration have issued infrastructure report cards for individual states and the nation as a whole, and we’re clearly not taking our infrastructure classes seriously enough. The 2021 ASCE report card graded the United States’ infrastructure a C-. That’s better than the D+ the nation received in 2017, but it isn’t going to cut it for millions of American who rely upon clean drinking water, efficient mass transit, safe bridges, internet access, and roads and highways that are not blighted with potholes or choked with traffic tie-ups.
Georgia too received a C+ (“mediocre, requires attention”) from both ASCE and Biden. The ASCE report card cited a $2.59 trillion investment gap over 10 years between what the State is currently projected to spend and what Georgia needs to spend to improve our grade, while highlighting these serious concerns:
- A water main breaks every two minutes and an estimated six billion gallons of treated water are lost each day in the US, enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.
- Growing wear and tear on our nation’s roads have left 43% of our public roadways in poor or mediocre condition, a number that has remained stagnant over the past several years.
- There are 30,000 miles of inventoried levees across the US and an additional 10,000 miles of levees whose location and condition are unknown.
In recent weeks, both the Biden Administration and Georgia state officials have unveiled new proposals to address our infrastructure issues and improve our collective grades. There are descriptions aplenty of both, but I’ll summarize them here through the lens of an engineer.
The Biden Infrastructure Proposal
President Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that covers four main areas, one of which is devoted to caregivers for the elderly and disabled. As such, I’ll focus on the three main areas that apply to those of us in the A/E/C industry.
Transportation ($621 billion)
- Electric vehicles and 500,000 electric charging stations
- 20,000 miles of highways, the 10 most “economically significant” bridges, and 10,000 smaller bridges
- Mass transit, Amtrak, airports, ports, and waterways
Quality of Life at Home ($650 billion)
- Build, renovate, and retrofit homes and commercial buildings
- Clean drinking water initiatives including replacing all lead pipes and service lines
- Modernizing public schools
- High-speed broadband networks
- Public housing, Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics, community colleges, and funds to plug abandoned oil and gas wells and to reclaim abandoned mines
Research, Development & Manufacturing ($530billion)
- Clean energy, the electric grid, and emission reduction
Given the magnitude of the investment, it’s no wonder that Biden said this in introducing it: “It is not a plan that tinkers around the edges, it is a once-in-a-generation investment in America.”
Georgia’s Infrastructure Initiatives
In Georgia, the Governor and legislative leaders have proposed several initiatives specific to this state. They include:
- New transportation initiatives that address roads, bridges, airports, rail lines, and ports, with an emphasis on intermodal and rail projects
- Increased access to broadband networks by leveraging EMCs throughout rural Georgia
- Maintenance of state-owned short-line railroads to reduce truck highway traffic, again with a focus on rural rail lines
To pay for all of this, the state will sell taxable bonds ($1.1 million/year over 20 years), starting July 1st.
As someone who’s made a living designing and building infrastructure for most of my career, these bold plans for addressing obvious shortcomings in our national infrastructure are encouraging. Anyone who drives a car, takes public transit, flies frequently, or braves the rails is regularly exposed to the innumerable shortcomings in the nuts and bolts of our country.
Atlanta’s infrastructure needs are substantial and we’re now suffering from a bit of a COVID hangover, given the immediacy of the crisis and the demand for new, previously unconsidered investments. Here and across the state, municipalities are scrambling to get plans in place for shovel-ready projects.
What it Means in Georgia
Whatever the ultimate size of the investment, Georgia—because of our sheer size—is likely to receive a substantial infrastructure investment. What are some of the obvious areas our public officials and private-sector partners should be addressing?
We don’t have much wind in Georgia, so our pathway to green energy federal dollars is the sun. Areas south of Macon are especially conducive to high sun exposure, and I’m confident that you’ll see a plethora of solar farms starting up to harness solar energy. But harvesting solar energy is only part of the equation. The innovation and technology challenges come in storing and disseminating that valuable power source. As we saw in Texas this winter, energy needs to be available when demand peaks, whether the sun is shining or rain and snow last for days. We need to make even greater strides in battery technology that allows us to store that energy for use during scorching July days and January “Snowmaggedons.”
Georgia has done a lot over the last few years to increase available revenue for roads, bridges, mass transit, and other transportation requirements. Currently, there are three new revenue streams bolstering transportation funding:
- Regional TSPLOST (Transportation Special Purpose Local Taxes)
- Single-county TSPLOST
- Increased Georgia gas tax
These revenue enhancements that you and I are paying for have already resulted in such projects as the elevated commuter lanes arching above I-75 (sometimes referred to as the Acworth Autobahn). And there are plans for the north I-285 Perimeter expansion from I-20 to I-20 with two new lanes in each direction, as well as the GA 400 Express Lanes.
But we also need to address transportation needs inside the Perimeter, where population and building density is increasing. MARTA—our regional mass transit system–tops that list, and our goal should be to ultimately transform it from an axial system to an integrated one. For those of us who can afford to drive a car and battle the time-stress that accompanies driving, we’re the fortunate ones. We often only use the MARTA train system when we’re going to the airport or the Mercedes-Benz or Bobby Dodd stadia. But for everyone, MARTA needs to become a transportation system more like New York City or Washington, DC, one that can take you where you want to go in a reasonable amount of time.
Density has always been a concern in a city with a population of slightly more than 500,000 surrounded by a metro area of 5.9 million. That large-scale diffusion of people has meant that cars are kings in this region. But changes are coming.
- Toll Brothers recently announced plans to build 35- and 37-story towers north of Technology Square in Midtown geared toward providing high-end housing for students at Georgia Tech, Georgia State, SCAD, and Emory.
- In Cobb and Gwinnett counties, local leaders increasingly support expanding MARTA into their areas. In Atlanta, the infill occurring within Atlanta’s city limits will create the density necessary for a transit system that employs light rail, buses, streetcars, bike lanes, and the Atlanta BeltLine. To that end, MARTA is undertaking a $500,000, six-month study by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. on transportation “pinch points” along the BeltLine and how to employ light rail and other modes along the route, something that could ultimately serve as a catalyst for obtaining federal and state funding assistance.
- The half-penny sales tax passed in the City and $6 million in MARTA funding from the state legislature is already laying a foundation to accommodate the major expansion of name-brand companies like Microsoft and Google. The Microsoft expansion in particular has considerable potential for the Bankhead and Grove Park neighborhoods. MARTA is looking to upgrade and expand the Bankhead Station platform, improve track infrastructure, and enhance pedestrian access to it.
Combine these two developments with the TSPLOST money mentioned above and the transportation stars might be aligning favorably on transportation. Federal infrastructure funding could then serve as the catalyst for significant improvements to local and national infrastructure.
Make no mistake, major challenges remain. As someone who also works closely with my peers in municipal and state government—and who pays taxes to both—I appreciate concerns that many have about how this massive investment is spent.
In addition, all of us in the A/E/C industries understand the challenges we face in finding top talent to staff our firms and realize the promise of infrastructure investments. We also know full well that construction costs are rising dramatically, driven by essentials like steel, lumber, and concrete.
There is no debate about whether we need infrastructure investment. The question is what exactly is it and how much can we, as a nation, afford? To prepare for it, we should be well into planning for shovel-ready projects that meet legitimate needs. We should also advocate for federal funding with local administration, not layers of top-down dictates.
If we can agree on the policy, spend money in the right places and on things the right way, maybe—just maybe—we can boost our grade to a B!
If we can help you get a shovel-ready project in place, please let us know. Additionally, I welcome your feedback on this topic. Either way, you can reach me at RMacPherson@Prime-Eng.com.