The idea of infrastructure is going to evolve and grow

May 5, 2021

This column published as "On Possible Change" in May/June 2021 issue

Infrastructure—in both language and concept, in common understanding—has traditionally been associated with physical assets.

And this is our wheelhouse here at Roads & Bridges. (The name really does say it all, doesn’t it?) But now it looks as though the general conversation as to what constitutes healthy and sustained (and sustainable) infrastructure is changing—or perhaps widening is a better way to put it—to include aspects not traditionally associated with our common understanding of what infrastructure is.

Our surface transportation system is the keystone of our national health, both functionally and economically. It is the means by which goods are transported, necessities are dispersed, and people get to their jobs and homes and medical appointments and groceries stores, et al. This system is like a fabric loosely woven but composed of material as strong as the web of a certain well-known superhero. It connects communities and facilitates opportunity.

But it, in itself, does not stand alone in providing the systemic service to our populace that brings opportunity and prosperity, or even just the simple means of getting from here to there and back again.

The American Jobs Plan, as proposed, would focus first and foremost on modernizing thousands of miles of highways and roads, fixing the most in-need of our national bridges, replacing thousands of buses and rail cars, hundreds of stations, and expanding transit and rail into new communities. It would also make a priority of building, rehabilitating, and retrofitting affordable, accessible, energy efficient, and resilient housing, commercial buildings, schools, and child care facilities across the country, while at the same time improving wages and benefits for essential home care workers. These latter concerns may come to be considered infrastructure, too.

This potential evolution or alteration in the concept of infrastructure, while alarming in some quarters, does not seem pose a threat to those areas in which infrastructure has traditionally been defined. Roads, bridges, water supply, airports, the national rail network—all of these are still top priority systems and will, should this come to pass, be robustly funded.

As of this writing, there are other plans also in play, so it is important to stay apprised of the conversation surrounding infrastructure because at the end of the day it may be seen as all of a part with regard to the government’s approach to funding it, both now and potentially in the future.

This will, I really do hope, be a good thing. I picture the road or bridge builder leaving before dawn for his latest project, facing a rough next 10 hours, stepping out into the near-light of dark and though leaving to his spouse the care of their children and the struggle to get them to school or dependable daycare—perhaps also the duty of securing care for an elderly parent—doing so with confidence that there are supported systems in place to ease that daily struggle. I see no dissociation here in what supports the health of this family. I see hard and soft infrastructure working as one. Working for us, not against.

About The Author: Budzynski is senior managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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