Life as we know it has come to a complete standstill with each passing day of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re witnessing record unemployment numbers and a plummeting GDP, both of which have led to travel advisories, road closures, and tanking bus ridership numbers.
With Utah bus ridership down 73%, FrontRunner commuter rail down 89%, light rail down 74% and paratransit down 88%, we’re in an unparalleled moment when construction would present the least amount of disruption for the traveling public. Utah has also been a leader in testing connected and autonomous vehicles, so what better time to advance this technology than when less drivers are behind the wheel and roads are mostly clear?
The combination of zero traffic disruptions and extremely low interest rates makes this the most cost-efficient time to make some infrastructure improvements that are long overdue. For example, projects that are in the mill and close to being completed can be fast-tracked. Maintenance can be accomplished when there’s less traffic on the roads. This does not mean, however, that isolation will fix things.
Although Utah has not halted construction efforts, assistance from the federal government could accelerate future growth and ensure our systems can withstand prolonged revenue loss. With mounting unemployment, and construction one of few industries humming along during this time, such investment would also provide welcomed demand for good-paying jobs with minimal barriers to entry.
Thankfully, Congress passed the CARES Act to support businesses and individuals affected by the pandemic and provide relief to state transportation agencies. However, this aid is just immediate to keep operations going amidst steep revenue declines.
Utah Transit Authority officials expect at least three-year recovery period to make up for lost revenues from the pandemic. The CARES Act made UTA eligible for $187 million in emergency federal aid – less than UTA’s overall budget of $490 million. The aid will keep UTA afloat for now, but who knows how long it’ll be before revenues bounce back.
When we’re passed this, the strength of our infrastructure systems will define our capacity to regain our nation’s economic footing. We’ll need modern, reliable freight networks to move American goods to market. Transit must be in good shape to get people to work efficiently and safely. Any weaknesses in these systems will put our nation in greater jeopardy of falling behind when we need to be catching up.
America’s infrastructure bill is past due, with decades of deferred maintenance and projects on the books that span the water, transportation, dams, levees, and energy sectors. While we wait for Congress to do its part, American families lose at least $9 day in disposable income due to poor, unreliable infrastructure. Underinvestment in our nation’s infrastructure is projected to result in a loss of 2.5 million jobs, $3.9 trillion in GDP, and $7 trillion in lost business sales by 2025.
Oh, and these figures don’t account for the economic fallout from COVID-19.
Today’s focus is understandably on short-term emergency relief. As we move towards the path to recovery, Congress should ensure long-term investment includes a robust surface transportation program, investment in clean drinking water systems, and support for cutting-edge research on resilience and innovative materials at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
As American families and businesses face unemployment and economic uncertainty, Congress must enact a bold recovery plan that will put Utah and the rest of the country on good footing when we emerge. Making comprehensive investment now in sustainable and resilient infrastructure means there’s an opportunity to create jobs and spur economic stimulus, all while making a down payment on the resiliency of our nation.
Kancheepuram “Guna” N. Gunalan, Ph.D, P.E., Salt Lake City, is president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Helena Schwarz, Washington, D.C., is executive director of Build Together.