Smarter Infrastructure
Is Safer and More Resilient

Rethinking Processes and Putting People First Amid Digitization

April 2021:

Smarter Infrastructure Is Safer and More Resilient

Investment in the U.S.’s transportation infrastructure is an investment in its economic success.

For the first time since 2017, the United States has a new grade for its infrastructure; and for the first time in two decades, it’s not a ‘D’. In March 2021, the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) released its quadrennial report card, which analyzed 17 categories of infrastructure (up from 16 categories in 2017 with the addition of stormwater) and gave the U.S. a cumulative grade of ‘C-’. Transportation infrastructure—including roads, rail, bridges, and transit—was a mixed bag, with the highest and lowest individual grades going to rail (‘B’) and transit (‘D-’), respectively. But maybe because of COVID-19 the powers that be decided to grade on a curve this time around.

However, we should still be acknowledging that while any progress is progress, a ‘C’- level grade is mediocre at best. Some say America’s infrastructure is beyond “needing attention” and is literally crumbling beneath our feet. And in fact, it’s sad that we are all celebrating a C-. In this narrative, inaction is to blame. In order to improve U.S. infrastructure, the U.S. needs to invest in it. But what is technology’s role in improving infrastructure? What’s the government’s role? Can making America’s infrastructure smarter also make it safer and more resilient?

Old Age and Underfunding

ASCE president Jean-Louis Briaud says of the 17 categories analyzed in the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, five grades slightly improved while one grade (for bridges) decreased. These improvements in specific categories allowed the cumulative GPA to slightly increase from a ‘D+’ in 2017 to a ‘C-’ in 2021, marking the first time in more than 20 years that the nation’s infrastructure received a grade that wasn’t in the ‘D’ range. “However, 11 of the 17 categories scored in the ‘D’ range, and only two categories scored in the ‘B’ range—rail and ports,” Briaud says. “This is a major cause for concern and further emphasizes the need for a robust and comprehensive infrastructure package to address funding deficits across the 17 sectors. Not only have we been failing to maintain our infrastructure at levels that were deemed necessary in the past, but we are even further from fully modernizing our existing systems so that they are prepared to handle increased capacity and more severe weather patterns across the U.S.”

Maria Lehman, U.S. infrastructure lead at GHD, serves on the ASCE’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure. She says most of the nation’s infrastructure is 50 to 100 years old, and it’s crumbling. “I have said that our infrastructure is not in a mid-life crisis, it is in an old-age crisis,” Lehman says. “The U.S. needs a Marshall Plan to rebuild our infrastructure. We have seen failures in all our systems and in our system of systems. When one piece of infrastructure fails, there is a domino effect. In 2020, we saw the largest number of billion-dollar storms since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin. began tallying disaster costs. We had 22 different disasters that resulted in $95 billion in damages and 262 deaths.

Source: Failure to Act Report

Severe weather plus a fair-to-poor infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. We need strategic investment from all levels of government—federal, state, and local, as well as private investment—to get back to the worldwide leadership position we once enjoyed.”

Source: ASCE 2021 Report Card for American’s Infrastructure

Underfunding has been a chronic issue for transportation infrastructure in recent past. ASCE’s Briaud says transportation infrastructure has largely struggled across the U.S. While rail had the highest grade in the 2021 report card with a ‘B’, this is due to proper investments being made in the freight rail network, which contrasts with passenger rail, which is lagging behind. “Over 40% of our roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and the number of bridges rated ‘good’ has been decreasing, while the number of bridges rated ‘fair’ is on the rise. Not helping matters is that the nation’s federal gas tax has not been raised and is still at 18 cents per gallon since 1993. Imagine living on your 1993 salary,” Briaud quips. “The gas tax plays a major role in funding these projects, and we’ve fallen too far behind in maintaining them. The FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act, passed in 2015, was a start to addressing funding, but that fund is set to expire in September 2021.”

Kara Kockelman, professor of transportation engineering in the Dept. of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, says public infrastructures were designed for a lifespan of about 30 years, and they’re being asked to live 50+ years without major rehabilitation, and that’s a major cause for concern. Kockelman also calls the U.S.’s low gas tax “embarrassing.” She says: “Gasoline is a hazardous material and should probably be taxed at well more than a dollar per gallon, just to cover the cost of our involvement in the Middle East and things like that,” she says.

Plus, infrastructure is expensive. “It (costs) about $10 million per lane mile for freeways, and if they’re

Source: ASCE 2021 Report Card for American’s Infrastructure

elevated, like up on piers or tunneled, then that’s $100 million per lane mile, so it’s very expensive infrastructure,” Kockelman explains. “But the gas tax has stayed (the same) for the last 28 years, which is embarrassing, and so we are actually having to fund highways and transit from other sources, like income taxes. It’s a really awful, awful decision on the part of our legislators.”

And just how costly is the decision not to act to improve the nation’s infrastructure? Very costly indeed.

Source: Failure to Act Report

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Infrastructure and the Economy

A crumbling infrastructure cannot support a healthy economy. GHD’s Lehman says the most important way the U.S. can invest in its future growth is to invest in its infrastructure and to make it more resilient. “In ASCE’s Failure to Act report, it is estimated that in the next 20 years, the current inadequate infrastructure costs an average American household $3,300 annually in delays, property damage, and unreliable utilities—both at the individual level and at the manufacturing and distribution level, resulting in these costs being passed down to consumers in higher prices.” Further, Lehman says the federal government estimates every dollar invested in infrastructure leverages $4 to $6 in economic stimulation in the community it serves—an incredible return on investment.

Source: ASCE 2021 Report Card for American’s Infrastructure

Zhu Mao, assistant professor in the Structural Dynamics and Acoustic Systems Laboratory at UMass Lowell, says improving the nation’s infrastructure is absolutely critical for future economic growth. “Infrastructure provides the necessary motility of people, food supply, power transmission, etc.,” Mao says. “The investment in improving the nation’s infrastructure will create jobs, stimulate vocational education and also STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, which will be beneficial to the country in a few decades.”


Source: ASCE 2021 Report Card for American’s Infrastructure

Ruth Gratzke, president of Siemens Smart Infrastructure U.S., says the dire state of America’s infrastructure has been apparent for years, but 2021 is starting to look like the year where the nation will really start to make progress. “There’s never been a more powerful moment for a national focus on infrastructure to help us move faster towards the future we really want,” Gratzke says. “We are well equipped to move our schools, healthcare infrastructure, manufacturing, power grids, and the nation’s transportation into the connected future. We want to create infrastructure, buildings, and cities that are more sustainable as we use technology to address climate change and more resilient as we retool our power grid and manufacturing sector.”

Source: ASCE 2021 Report Card for American’s Infrastructure

For instance, in the next decade, consumers, governments, and commercial operators will increasingly pursue the electrification of vehicles and fleets as a business decision, greening a sector that’s the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. “While there is great interest among consumers in EVs (electric vehicles), the lack of a robust EV charging infrastructure is a top barrier to EV adoption,” Gratzke explains. “We share the view that electric mobility can only grow as fast as the charging infrastructure enables it to.”

Building out the EV infrastructure could also deliver economic benefits. “Beyond the opportunity for the U.S. to regain global leadership in vehicle manufacturing, EVs provide the opportunity to significantly improve the utilization of our electrical grid,” explains Gratzke. “When EV owners charge their vehicles, they generate additional revenues for utilities without raising the cost of service—more electrons are being pushed through a grid that is essentially a fixed cost already paid for. In addition, the 50% savings on fuel that EV drivers are getting is now available for those individuals to buy additional products and services in their communities.”

Source: ASCE 2021 Report Card for American’s Infrastructure

Smarter, Safer Infrastructure

The infrastructure investment gap is in the trillions, and the economic impact of this continued gap is clear. Using technology and innovation is critical in closing the gap. “Smart technology is already making major impacts on safety and security, and that will only increase with time,” says GHD’s Lehman. “Most cars can call to get help if your car is involved in a crash. Newer vehicles have many driver-assist features that improve safety. Smart buildings can monitor indoor air quality and adjust for improvements based on the sensor data. Cities are coordinating their signal systems, which can change to allow for rerouting traffic due to a crash or breakdown or change traffic patterns to allow for rapid evacuation in an incoming severe weather event.” Lehman uses the term techceleration to describe the process of better understanding how to apply IoT (Internet of Things) technologies to deliver better, faster, and cheaper infrastructure solutions more safely.

Source: Failure to Act Report

Robert Mair, professor of civil engineering and director of research in the Dept. of Engineering at Cambridge University, says recent innovative advances, particularly in sensor technologies, data acquisition, and data analytics, have radically increased the capacity of infrastructure and improved its security and resilience, and only by proper measurement and data analysis (including the formation of digital twins) can nations really improve their infrastructures. “The engineering, management, maintenance, and upgrading of infrastructure requires fresh thinking to minimize use of materials, energy, and labor, while still ensuring resilience and safety,” Mair explains.

Source: ASCE 2021 Report Card for American’s Infrastructure

“This can only be achieved by a full understanding of the performance of the infrastructure, both during its construction and throughout its operating life through the application of innovative sensor technologies and data analytics.”

By learning much more about the real performance of infrastructure through sensing and data analytics, cities and nations can make step changes in how they design, construct, operate, and maintain the built environment. “There is an urgent need to exploit digital technologies to establish a smart and sustainable infrastructure industry,” concludes Mair. “Only by doing this can we reduce carbon, increase resilience, and preserve resources.”

Evangelos Kaisar, professor and director of the Freight Mobility Research Institute and the Multimodal Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory at Florida Atlantic University, says applying smart systems to road infrastructure improves safety, with the most common application being variable-message signs that warn drivers of obstacles that they are going to face down the road. “Having ‘smarter’ implementations to the infrastructure field is definitely going to lead to safer roads, structures, and cities,” Kaisar says. “Using IoT technologies makes it possible for cities and roads to collect and analyze data that can be used for traffic management and for preventing accidents. These new technologies can lead to less-congested streets, as well as improve traffic and pedestrian safety.”

Siemens’ Ruth Gratzke says smart infrastructure not only promotes safety but also improves resiliency and sustainability. “For example, when it comes to wildfire mitigation, technologies currently installed at points along the power grid are greatly reducing risk.

4 Hidden Costs of Continued Underfunding of Infrastructure Systems

The ASCE’s Failure to Act report quantifies how continued underfunding of infrastructure systems could impact the U.S. economy in the course of 20 years.

Status-quo investment across infrastructure systems, according to the report, would cost Americans:

  • $10 trillion in GDP
  • At least $23 trillion in total output (primarily business sales)
  • 3 million or more jobs in 2039
  • $3,300 or more per family each year from 2020 to 2039

At the same time, decentralized power systems like microgrids are supporting resilience, clean power, and environmental justice,” she says. “Energy efficiency and sustainability are another benefit. Buildings produce 40% of all emissions globally, but by deploying data technologies and clean power systems, (essentially) connecting smarter buildings to a smarter grid, we can both decarbonize our built environment and even make it less expensive to operate and maintain.”

UMass Lowell’s Mao says integrating modern technologies, including the IoT, autonomous systems, and big data analytics using artificial intelligence into infrastructure improves 1) awareness of the state of infrastructure, 2) its reliability and resilience, and 3) its safety. On top of these benefits, smarter infrastructure is often more convenient for citizens and local governments, for instance, by enabling the use of live traffic information for decisionmaking purposes. And by supporting predictive maintenance of infrastructures, smart systems can increase their longevity, maximizing investments for the long term.

Of course, whenever we talk about infrastructure, the question of funding always looms. “The business model is still unclear for now,” Mao adds. “Who will pay for the investment that benefits the whole society?” While it isn’t yet clear how infrastructure spending will change in the next decade in the U.S., whether the gas tax will catch up with the times, or how the new administration will address challenges in the realm of transportation and infrastructure, what is clear is that Americans themselves are the ones who will pay the price if the nation continues to underfund its infrastructure systems.

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Peggy and Walid Ali, artificial intelligence, manufacturing, Microsoft, talk about manufacturing, AI (artificial intelligence), and how to empower workers. He says the workforce has been so drastically challenged with what has happened with COVID19 that now we are facing a demand for efficiency increase, a demand for better productivity, and a demand for also scaling the workforce.

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