pavement sample
Civil engineering lab at Temple University College of Engineering
Photo: Colleen Stepanian

Now that President Biden has signed the $1 trillion dollar infrastructure package into law, much of the news coverage has been on the perceived enormity of the investment. While $1 trillion is substantial, continuing to ignore our infrastructure comes at a far greater cost. 

A report published earlier this year by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that our nation's aging infrastructure, coupled with continued disinvestment, would cause "the loss of $10 trillion in GDP and lead to a decline of more than $23 trillion in business productivity cumulatively over the next two decades." 

What does that mean for Philadelphia and the surrounding region? It's the water pouring from your faucet to the SEPTA bus you take to the roads and bridges that buses use. It's the power grid keeping lights on at hospitals and long-term care facilities. It's making every mode of transit safe and accessible, and updating our capacity to manage storms, like Hurricane Ida that devastated the region. 

One example of an investment that would cut across infrastructure needs would be in modernizing the power grid. A more resilient grid would mitigate the potential impacts of power outages, such as those induced by severe weather. For example, according to the Department of Energy, Superstorm Sandy cost between $33 and $52 billion in 2012, from a combination of lost output and wages, to spoiled inventory to direct grid damage. With the looming specter of climate change, those costs are likely to increase unless grid preparedness becomes a priority. 

This can be done by leveraging multiple "islanded" or interconnected local systems to enhance power grid stability and resiliency, instead of managing every controllable unit under one central utility-scale control system, the broader system can be safer. ComEd features "community microgrids" which are designed to enhance resiliency of a community power grid. Right here in Philadelphia, the Navy Yard also runs microgrids to support its campus. 

Also take our roadways. By prioritizing sustainable paving materials for repair and new roadway projects, we can ensure that this investment is a smart one. Imagine driving on Delaware Ave. or Market St. and not only experiencing a smooth ride, but a sustainable one because the paving material includes substantial post-consumer recycled material.  This bill could mean that we can finally apply smart asset management to our 2.7 million miles of paved roads. Let us deploy computer vision technology for monitoring our infrastructure performance or utilize artificial intelligence to expand the impact of these funds through advanced risk management. These technologies are established, but the transfer of this technology is always underfunded.

To be sure, these are two of many positives this bill can and should produce. The ability to cross the street or take a sip of water or flip on a light switch should not come at the cost of basic safety. We applaud the bipartisan efforts to ensure that Philadelphia and the country can be put back on solid ground once again. 

Dr. Ahmed Faheem is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Temple University. Dr. Xiaonan Lu is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Temple University.