President Joe Biden's post-COVID-19 pandemic plan for the United States' economic recovery, dubbed Build Back Better, includes a significant infrastructure piece. Experts from the private and public sectors at a recent American Society of Civil Engineers webinar discussed what steps are necessary to ensure that infrastructure in the United States is as resilient as possible moving forward.
It's worth noting that the ASCE gave U.S. infrastructure an average grade of C- across the 17 types of infrastructure it covers, the first time the organization has given the U.S. a score higher than a D+.
The webinar session revolved around some major questions and John Barton, senior vice president at HNTB; Carol Haddock, director of Houston Public Works; and Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development were on hand to provide insight and to talk about the ways that technology will help make future infrastructure projects more resilient.
Data-driven and technology-based asset management, Barton said, will give owners and operators the stream of information they need to conduct risk assessments and other decisions that will help them "evolve their standards, to build back with a forward-looking point of view." This approach allows agencies to upgrade, repair and replace equipment when needed and keeps service disruptions to a minimum, even potentially eliminating them altogether.
New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority, he said, took this approach during the pandemic, using the lull in demand and the information it gathered about its systems to guide crews as to which repairs and renovations to make in advance of future extreme weather events.
State DOTs, Wilson said, have to be innovative about working within existing confines to ensure that their projects are resilient.
"The reality is we are doing this on a regular basis, but we may not have been intentional about that," he said.
"We can do almost anything," Barton said, "but we can't do everything within the limitations of funding and the regulations that exist today."
Determining where systems are most fragile is a good way to determine where to start, and scenario-based planning is a way to do that. For example, in the case of the recent debilitating winter storm in Texas, had there been scenario-based planning around what would happen if the temperatures were at such a low level for a sustained period of time, public officials could have had a better response.
The trend toward more performance-based standards, Haddock said, gives agencies the ability to respond to shifting conditions.
"Technology is giving us more tools today than you can possibly imagine to do infrastructure assessment, to do it through automation ... to do it through robotics, all those things," Haddock said.
But public agencies, she said, also need to take advantage of the "eyes and ears" of the people that live in their districts in identifying additional information and micro-problems, which could influence planning decisions.
"Data is going to be a great and low-cost opportunity for us," Barton said, barring the expense associated with evaluating it. The amount of data that planners and builders currently have available is "extraordinary," aids in making better decisions and the amount off it is growing every day.
Another low-cost approach to more resilient infrastructure, he said, is to "elevate, eliminate and evaluate."
For example, raising traffic control signals above the flood zone rather than having them mounted on ground pedestals is a simple low-cost action to take, Barton said.
"The opposite of resiliency is fragility, and oftentimes we will build a structure that has some fragile critical element in it," he said." If we could eliminate [that], then we could avoid some of the consequences that we've experienced over the past several decades."