[NOTE: This article was written in May 2020 for a professor specializing in civil & environmental engineering. It was never published and is therefore being used here for my professional portfolio.]
Roads and bridges are the circulatory system—the arteries, veins, and capillaries—that make the supply and transporting of goods and services, the lifeblood of the country’s economy, possible. During the coronavirus crisis there has been much talk of the importance and vulnerability of supply chains. But the infrastructure is what holds the links of supply chains together, and without a strong infrastructure those links will come apart. This is true both at the federal and state levels.
In the latest infrastructure report cards released in 2017 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), America’s overall grade was a D+ and the state of Louisiana’s grade was also a D+. The Louisiana Section of the ASCE wrote, “Our infrastructure is poorly maintained, inadequately funded, and not designed to meet tomorrow’s demands. Consequently the state is at a disadvantage and will continue to lose its economic competitiveness.”
In mid-February, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) had announced that it was going to spend $730 million on the preservation, sustainability, and safety of the state’s infrastructure during 2020-2021. But that was before. Now with the COVID-19 crisis, and with DOTD chief Shawn Wilson having tested positive for the virus, it is unclear how those plans will move forward.
Yet move forward they must, in some form or other, and now more than ever. At this point, the question is not whether there will be a recession or not but how severe it will be and for how long. The recent CARES Act was the federal government’s efforts to mitigate this severity and duration, and Washington lawmakers are now looking to channel more funds into infrastructure projects as a way to further help the economy’s recovery. It is not clear whether this will happen right away or not, but they would be wise to do so as soon as possible. Infrastructure plays a critical role for supply chains and the economy as a whole, and investing in it will help with workforce development which will also be crucial in the weeks and months to come.
But to truly do justice to the connection between infrastructure and the economy, both in general and in light of the coronavirus, we must go beyond stressing the importance of infrastructure and talk about sustainable road infrastructure. Sustainable infrastructure building is the use of methods and materials in design, production, and construction that satisfy the functional purposes of roads and meet the so-called triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental concerns.
Sustainability in infrastructure isn’t a luxury but a necessity, especially now. Like other states that have been hit hard by COVID-19, Louisiana may end up slash budget expenses to address the crisis. And while state lawmakers are hoping for an influx of federal funds to help with infrastructure projects, dollars will inevitably have to be stretched thin. This is where sustainability innovations can help. Research has shown that sustainable road building innovations can not only lead to equal-or-better performance, they also maximize spending power and reduce costs, all while improving safety, durability, and environmental benefits at the same time.
Examples of sustainable road engineering practices that yield the aforementioned benefits include using recycled asphalt pavement (RAP), recycled asphalt shingles (RAS), and waste tires in pavement mixtures. These practices are now widely being used, but there are others out there—such as balanced mix design (BMD), warm mix asphalt (WMA), and increased pavement density—that are not yet being as much. However, these added innovations could bring the list of economic, social, and environmental benefits to a level that could make a tremendous difference.
Research and education will play a critical role in realizing this sustainable future. In the Sustainable Pavements Program Road Map put out by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), education about sustainability practices in each stage of the “life cycle” of pavement was designated as one of the most important needs and goals for advancing sustainability (the “life cycle” of pavement consists of multiple stages—design, production, construction, use, maintenance, and end of life—and within each of these are numerous advances and innovations that can improve the financial, economic, sustainability and safety factors of our infrastructure but that are not yet widely known or practiced.
Here at [REDACTED] University, we have the only [REDACTED] program offered in the [REDACTED] of the U.S. But thanks to the Academic Common Market program, students from Mississippi, Alabama, and Kentucky can enroll in our program without paying out-of-state tuition. Initiatives like this can go a long way towards helping to achieve the FHWA Road Map’s goal of increasing awareness of sustainable practices.
Next to protecting public health and safety, addressing the urgent needs of the economy should rightfully be federal, state, and local officials’ foremost concern. But we would do well to remember just how critical roads, bridges, and infrastructure will be to the economy’s recovery. Moreover, in doing so we should take care not to push sustainability issues to the wayside, especially given that sustainable civil engineering practices do not conflict with economic needs but rather facilitate them.