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Finally, here comes infrastructure: ‘A big prize for every person in Texas,’ says expert

Over $35 billion will go to improving the state’s roads, public transit, water supplies, bridges and more: ‘There’s a lot of people and a lot of need.’

“Infrastructure week” became a punchline in American politics because elected leaders spent years talking about repairing roads, bridges, dams, rail lines, airports, water supplies and more — yet never could manage to pony up the money.

All that changed this month after Congress approved $548 billion in new spending on infrastructure. President Joe Biden said this would be the biggest such investment since the U.S. built the interstate highway system and launched the space program decades ago.

Texas stands to be among the major beneficiaries because it’s the second-most-populous state and the fastest-growing one. Since 2010, Texas has added 4.1 million people — over 1 million more than Florida and nearly 2 million more than California, its closest rivals in population growth.

Dallas-Fort Worth added 1.27 million people in the past decade, surpassing the growth of larger metros like New York and Los Angeles.

“There’s a lot of people and a lot of need,” said Mark Boyd, principal engineer for LCA Environmental Inc. in the Dallas area. “So many are moving here every day, and they’re not bringing their water supply with them — or their roads.”

Texas is in line to get over $35 billion in infrastructure improvements over the next five years, according to White House estimates. That includes $26.9 billion for highways and roads in Texas, along with $3.3 billion for public transportation and $2.9 billion for improving water infrastructure.

Texas’ highways and roads were graded a “D+” by the American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2021 report card on Texas infrastructure. That means highways and roads are poor and at risk.

“Many Texas motorists are seeing increased delays, limited roadway capacities and deteriorating conditions,” the report card said. “Auto commuters in Austin, D-FW and Houston face significantly more congestion than the national average. The average Texan spends 54 hours in traffic at a cost of $1,080 annually.”

Implementing the buildup will be a challenge, in part because engineering firms and construction companies already have labor shortages. The infrastructure bill is projected to support over 175,000 new construction jobs annually, along with almost 46,000 jobs in professional, scientific and technical services, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Boyd, who chaired the engineering group that wrote the Texas infrastructure report card, is worried about the public getting frustrated if projects take too long. But there’s no quick fix for businesses that need thousands of engineers and construction workers.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said Boyd, who’s 60 years old. “You’re going to see a lot of worn-out baby boomers hanging on and delaying our retirements.”

Some believe labor supply problems will ease as the big infrastructure funding begins. That money will translate into revenue stability for employers and maybe higher wages for workers, said Chandra Bhat, a professor in transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

“People will feel good about that stability — and the higher incomes coming into their households,” Bhat said. “My gut is telling me the workforce might not be as much of a problem as it is now.”

Bhat, director of the school’s Center for Transportation Research, said it’s sensible to invest heavily in highways and roads, given the state’s traffic. But Texas needs more than $3.3 billion for public transportation.

“You’re not going to build your way out of traffic congestion, especially in Texas,” Bhat said.

The infrastructure bill includes funding for many grants, and Bhat hopes we can “harness the full potential of new technologies on the horizon.” For example, he said, we could create better stripes on existing roadways so tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles could sense lane markings in any weather.

“There are ways that we can invest now using the infrastructure bill funding for the future,” Bhat said.

It’s not clear how all the money will be allocated, how much will go toward repairs and how much to new projects. But investments go well beyond highways and roads, according to White House estimates.

About $1.2 billion will go to airports in Texas; $537 million to replacing and repairing bridges; $408 million to building a charging network for electric vehicles; at least $100 million for broadband expansion; and there’s $53 million to protect against wildfires and $42 million to protect against cyberattacks.

“The passing of the infrastructure bill offers a truly generational opportunity to modernize and strengthen American infrastructure and communities — including those here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” Steve Demetriou, CEO of Jacobs Engineering Group in Dallas, said in a written statement.

He cited “transformational and historic investments” in clean transportation, clean power and resilience to the changing climate. It’s more about connecting communities than just building with more concrete and steel, he said.

Nur Yazdani, professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, put it another way: “This is a big prize for every person in Texas.”

Yazdani, UTA colleagues and students are helping regional organizations set priorities. They’re evaluating bridges, landfills, water supply pipelines and more, he said. One faculty member created a robotic scanner to find leaks in water pipelines.

Much of the infrastructure money will be allocated by federal formula, which considers previous funding levels and other factors. Yazdani advises the North Central Texas Council of Governments, and that agency will help allocate funds for local highway projects after federal rulemaking is completed.

“It won’t happen in a day,” Yazdani said. “It may take years for the money to trickle into these agencies.”

It may flow faster for traditional highway improvements because they have long-established processes. But in other areas, such as creating a network of EV charging stations, the approach is not set, said Patrick Beecher, president of the Texas section of the American Society of Civil Engineers and senior principal with Terracon Consultants in Houston.

“They will take a little longer because they first have to define their overall strategy,” including where to build out first, Beecher said.

He expects new federal funds to start flowing into Texas next year and ramp up for several years. Despite the infrastructure bill’s mammoth size, it won’t cover all the improvements needed.

But it’s a big down payment, especially in D-FW and Texas.

“We need to keep supporting the people who live here and the people coming here,” Beecher said. “Infrastructure is a key part of that.”

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