Getting the nation’s infrastructure back up to 1950s standards simply isn’t good enough in today’s hyper-competitive global economy

March 4, 2021

This column published as "A Bill is Just a Start" in March 2021 issue

It’s no secret that the U.S. has a massive infrastructure problem on its hands.

Every state in the union is covered with pockmarked roads, unsafe and even collapsing bridges, and is suffering from a dearth of funds to correct the problem.

The Trump administration talked about infrastructure early on, but soon lost interest in pursing any meaningful plan as various problems and controversies overtook and consumed it during the 45th president’s tenure in office.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn it precipitated, the newly minted Biden administration finds itself eyeing a significant infrastructure bill as a solid way to inject some lifeblood into our flagging economy—and one measure that actually has a decent chance at gaining some bipartisan support from Republicans to boot.

But there’s another aspect to our current infrastructure problem that is currently not getting enough attention, in my opinion: The fact that simply restoring our roads and bridges to 1950s Eisenhower levels of repair and functionality is simply not sufficient if the nation wishes to remain the leading powerhouse in today’s highly competitive global super-economy.

It is a concern that was recently echoed by Steven Berglund, executive chairman of Trimble and an AEM chairman, during an AEM webinar titled, The 2020 Elections and the State of the Industry, on Jan. 14, 2021.

In his comments, Berglund noted that the Biden administration’s policies will naturally create both challenges and opportunities for AEM members in wide-ranging areas such as infrastructure, workforce development, corporate taxes, and international trade. However, Berglund said, the fact that the Democrats now control the House, Senate, and White House means that creating a viable infrastructure initiative is now a political reality as well as an economic necessity.

“AEM’s priority is to enact an infrastructure bill that will begin to correct the current infrastructure spending deficit,” Berglund told webinar viewers. “But our hope is also that the incoming administration will move beyond viewing infrastructure spending as simply a ‘jobs program’ or an economic stimulus plan and develop a strategy that anticipates the nation’s needs in the next 50 years.”

The 2021 definition of “infrastructure” has significantly expanded from what the term meant in the mid-20th century, when much of the nation’s current physical infrastructure was built, Berglund continued. 

And he’s correct. Today, America’s economic rivals are developing 21st century road networks that incorporate a wide range of new features and functions that are barely being discussed here in the U.S. The Chinese, late-starters in the global economy, are building thousands of miles of new, connected, “smart” highways each year. And vehicle-to-infrastructure capable roads, overpasses, and bridges are now commonplace in Europe, while experimental roadways that can charge electric cars and trucks as they drive or expedite autonomous vehicles are in active development in both Asia and Europe.

Building on that theme, Berglund added, “U.S. design decisions that were made in the 1950s are now straining under our existing transportation demands and will do even less well with new, emerging needs. Imagination will be important in developing an infrastructure program that incorporates concepts such as autonomous vehicles, drones, digital construction equipment, a connected but decentralized workforce, robust watershed management, and ubiquitous, highly reliable, high-broadband connectivity.”

Moreover, he added, “In all these areas it is important to view rural development as having equal importance in these construction efforts to urban needs.”

Given that the strategic timeline for doing anything impactful on infrastructure extends well beyond our current political cycle, Berglund stressed the importance of a genuine effort by both political parties to achieve a bipartisan, long-term plan of action that will enable the U.S. to retain its global economic leadership.

It is a worthy goal and one that would benefit our nation, the construction industry, and our children and grandchildren. And it is a message that should be consistently heard by any elected official from everyone in the construction industry today until real action is taken and shovels crunch into the ground and begin moving dirt.

About The Author: Roberts covers the equipment side of our industry for Roads & Bridges.

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