Experts: Consider extreme weather and changing technology to build resilient infrastructure
As the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act comes into effect, relevant agencies and organizations are planning how best to use the funds. That means leveraging the influx of spending over five years to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world, presenters said during a National Institute of Building Science webinar on April 19.
“Things are changing in terms of infrastructure vision…we’re not just thinking about business and economic development, we’re thinking about how we affect the whole community,” said Dan Pippenger, COO from the port of Portland, Oregon. , during the webinar. His organization manages airports and marine terminals in the Portland area.
“Our infrastructure needs to be adaptable and reliable, and that’s not the case today,” Pippenger said. “It’s not made for the future challenges that we’re going to have.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the nation’s infrastructure a C- note in his last newsletter. Many industries have massive maintenance backlogs and are not meeting current and future demand, according to the 2021 analysis.
Extreme Weather and Resilience
A key factor that builders and agencies need to plan for is climate change, Pippenger said. Rising temperatures and sea levels will have myriad effects downstream, and scientists say they expect more severe weather – from floods to wildfires to earthquakes – and a greater frequency.
“Climate change is here, and it’s hitting us, and it’s changing both our vegetation and our water supply,” Pippenger said. “We really have to think about that when we think about infrastructure.”
To that end, POP is using $3.75 million in Infrastructure Act funds to help build a $140 million seismic track at Portland Airport so he could survive a massive earthquake. He is using another IIJA grant for a geothermal heating system to electrify heating and cooling in the terminal, which will cut energy consumption in half.
Pippenger said Infrastructure Act funds are ideal for projects that solve future problems and even save money down the road, but would not translate financially in the short term.
Thinking about infrastructure projects holistically is not a passing fad, speakers said, but rather good strategy and good business sense. The growing wave of ESG reporting in the construction sector and beyond in recent years indicates that the environmental and social implications of projects will be increasingly important to consider.
“Wall Street… is partly driving ESG initiatives right now,” said Carla Bailo, Center for Automotive Research, during the webinar.
Technology, culture changes
Technological and cultural developments will also shape infrastructure needs in the decades to come. “We have to think about disruptions that are not necessarily climate change, but just technology and social behavior,” Pippenger said.
COVID-19, which has touched just about every facet of life around the world, is a clear example of such disruption. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of contactless technology in airportsand architects now favor a more flexible and open design for terminals that could be used for health testing and more, Pippenger said.
Bailo also gave the example of electric vehicles, which have rapidly gained popularity over the past few years. Beyond a network of chargers, the rise of electric vehicles also requires new battery and vehicle factories, especially in the Southeast where energy is cheaper and greener. The country will also need stronger broadband and cellular networks to facilitate self-driving cars, Bailo said.
Other transport infrastructure must also adapt to electric vehicles. For example, marine terminals need to be able to accommodate electric vehicles, Pippenger said, requiring authorities to add more nearby substations to handle the extra power consumption. Melissa Connolly, assistant vice president of government affairs at the Association of American Railroads, urged transit agencies to plan potential IIJA-funded projects as quickly as possible.
While planning for future needs may mean more work and upfront costs, the extra care pays off, experts say. Entrepreneurs who building for resilience and connectivity will be ahead of their competitors in the years to come.
“One of the challenges of building infrastructure in the United States now, even with the bill, is that it’s really not about anticipating things that might happen, it’s about what you can do now and get what you pay for,” Pippenger said. Instead, we need to “really think about all these disruptions and how we build a flexible infrastructure.