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Rust on the underside of a metal bridge.
Aging U.S. infrastructure: Rust on the underside of the Norwalk River Railroad Bridge, built in 1896 in Norwalk, Conn., and scheduled for replacement starting in 2022. AP Photo/Susan Haigh

Bridges, bike lanes, electric car chargers and more: 5 essential reads on the infrastructure bill

After months of debate and negotiation, Congress has passed a sweeping measure to upgrade many parts of the nation’s infrastructure. The bill provides US$1.2 trillion in funding, including $550 billion in new federal spending; the rest renews and updates existing transportation programs, such as highway construction.

While the bill is smaller than President Joe Biden’s original $2.6 trillion request, it still represents the largest federal investment in U.S. infrastructure in over a decade. A statement from the White House asserts that the legislation will “drive the creation of good-paying union jobs and grow the economy sustainably and equitably.”

These five articles from our archives analyze some infrastructure needs that will receive new funding.

1. Fixing crumbling bridges

The infrastructure bill provides $110 billion to fix thousands of aging roads and bridges across the U.S. That money will be especially welcome in Alaska, where climate change is thawing permafrost – accelerating corrosion of steel bridges – and melting river ice that many people used to cross by snowmobile. Fewer than half of the state’s bridges are deemed to be in good condition.

“When the ice is unstable or unpredictable, people who rely on crossing the river are stuck and the risk of snowmobile fatalities rises,” a team of engineers and social scientists from Penn State University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks report. “Federal infrastructure investment could help direct funds to rural bridges that might otherwise continue to deteriorate.”

Read more: Infrastructure bill passed by Congress promises billions for bridge repair – rural Alaska shows the growing need as temperatures rise

2. Building a 21st-century power grid

Energy experts widely agree that the U.S. needs to upgrade its electric grid so that it can deliver power more reliably over long distances and integrate more renewable electricity into the nation’s energy mix. The infrastructure bill contains $65 billion to update and expand the grid.

Connecting the fragmented U.S. power system into what’s known as a macrogrid – a network that can move electricity seamlessly from one end of the U.S. to the other – could actually save money, according to Iowa State University electrical and computer engineering professor James McCalley. That’s true even though it would mean adding hundreds of megawatts of new generating capacity and new transmission lines to connect those power plants to customers.

“By making it possible to share power across regions and deliver high-quality renewable power from remote areas to load centers, the macrogrid would more than pay for itself,” McCalley writes.

Read more: The US needs a macrogrid to move electricity from areas that make it to areas that need it

The U.S. electric grid is an engineering marvel, but it’s also outdated.

3. Making streets safer for walkers and bikers

The infrastructure bill provides $11 billion for measures designed to make highways and streets safer. That includes investments to improve features that protect pedestrians and cyclists, like updated sidewalks, bike lanes and street crossings.

John Rennie Short, an urban policy expert at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, says these measures are overdue. “In the 21st century, a new city ideal has emerged of a more bike-friendly, walking-oriented city. But piecemeal implementation of bike lanes, pedestrianized zones and traffic calming measures often just adds to the confusion,” he writes. “More people are being killed because cities are encouraging residents to walk and bike, but their roads are still dominated by fast-moving vehicular traffic.”

Read more: Why US cities are becoming more dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians

4. More EV charging stations

Experts widely agree that slowing climate change requires a massive global shift from fossil fuels to low- and zero-carbon energy sources. That transition is underway in the auto industry, where carmakers are pouring billions of dollars into new electric vehicle designs.

But the EV revolution faces a critical speed bump: not enough public charging stations. The infrastructure bill includes $7.5 billion to expand the existing U.S. network, which today exists mainly in coastal states.

Stanford University historian Paul N. Edwards calls this funding “a small but genuine down payment on a more climate-friendly transport sector and electric power grid, all of which will take years to build out.” While the upfront cost may seem high, Edwards notes that “over the long term, the potential savings from avoided climate risks like droughts, floods, wildfires, deadly heat waves and sea level rise would be far, far larger.”

Read more: Climate change is an infrastructure problem – map of electric vehicle chargers shows one reason why

5. Reconnecting divided neighborhoods

Most funds in the infrastructure bill are for building new facilities or upgrading those that already exist. But the legislation also provides $1 billion for tearing down highways that have cut off Black residents and other people of color from the cities around them, reducing their access to transportation, jobs and economic opportunity.

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“As we see it, this funding represents a down payment on restorative justice: remedying deliberate discriminatory policies that created polluted and transit-poor neighborhoods like West Bellfort in Houston, Westside in San Antonio and West Oakland, California,” write urban policy scholars Joan Fitzgerald at Northeastern University and Julian Agyeman at Tufts University.

As Fitzgerald and Agyeman see it, removing barrier highways alone won’t be enough to transform disadvantaged neighborhoods. But dismantling what they call “racist infrastructure” could catalyze other investments in housing, transportation and green spaces that would make these communities healthier and more prosperous.

Read more: Removing urban highways can improve neighborhoods blighted by decades of racist policies

Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

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