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In defense of the bipartisan infrastructure law

In the March/April issue (page 6), Steven P. Scalici, P.E., M.ASCE, bemoaned the current infrastructure bill for several reasons, including promoting far-left causes “toward building and repairing roads, bridges, and railways.”

As with any large federal bill, everyone will be able to find objectionable things in it. However, when urgent needs, such as the climate emergency we face, demand a rapid shift in fundamental infrastructure supporting energy production and distribution and transportation systems, the federal government must be, and always has been, key to motivating the change.

On the promotion of electric vehicle charging stations in the bill, Mr. Scalici poses a rhetorical question: “Did we team with Henry Ford and Standard Oil a century ago to build private gas stations?” The (truth is that) Standard Oil was broken up (in 1911) before the first drive-in fueling station was opened (in 1913). However, the question probably intended is whether subsidies played a role in the expansion of infrastructure promoting gasoline-driven transportation. To that, the answer, of course, is a resounding yes. Major oil producers established national gas station chains while receiving massive public subsidies. Fossil fuel use in the U.S. has been promoted via public funding since the 19th century through mechanisms including land grants, tax policy, and direct spending. Every year we support the burning of oil and coal with (tens of billions of dollars in direct subsidies and trillions in negative externalities) — environmental and public health costs borne by us. Massive federal investment created our current infrastructure focused on gasoline-powered transportation.

As civil engineers, we strive to serve the public by providing the most efficient solutions to infrastructure problems. Building infrastructure (even with subsidies) to support the use of EVs that operate at 75-80% efficiency, as opposed to gas vehicles (12-30% efficiency), is smart policy from energy, economic, and public health perspectives. Supporting the expansion of mass transit and rail promotes even more efficient systems.

The science has been telling us for nearly half a century that a transition from a fossil-fuel-based economy is essential to allow future generations to thrive, yet the lack of investment has left us inadequately prepared for the future we face. As summarized by the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in February, our current understanding of our Earth’s system shows climate change is “a grave and mounting threat to our well-being and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.”

While the infrastructure bill and the follow-on Inflation Reduction Act (once known as Build Back Better) are imperfect and inadequate on their own to solve this, they are important steps forward, representing a collective investment in building a more sustainable future.

Ed Maurer, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE Santa Clara, California

This article first appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Civil Engineering.

Letters to the editor are welcome. The opinions and positions stated are those of the authors and not by the fact of publication necessarily those of the American Society of Civil Engineers or Civil Engineering.