The COVID-19 crisis has forced everyone, including our public agencies, to face new and unexpected challenges. Our communities are learning, adapting and innovating every day. One day, hopefully soon, our world will appear more like it did before the pandemic, but we will be changed. With possible funding from an anticipated federal stimulus package, now is the time to imagine the future we want and what infrastructure we will need to make it a reality.
Crucial sectors, such as transportation, have an opportunity to fundamentally change as a result of our shared COVID-19 experience. The last major shift to the transportation industry came after 9/11, which forever altered personal travel routines and the design of our public spaces. Transportation has an opportunity to evaluate what worked, what failed and what will be needed for a changed world.
The New Normal
Agencies would be wise to seek federal funding for projects that recognize the effect COVID-19 has had on our infrastructure needs. If ever there was a time for a unique approach, it is now. For instance, our communities have needed large public spaces with room for people to social distance outside. This is an opportunity to plan better outdoor spaces, reclaim portions of our street grid, right-size our highway investments and improve biking and walking facilities to better reflect our COVID-19 experience. Creating a plan for living a life that is better connected, even at a distance, may become the new normal.
The pandemic has highlighted holes in our social safety net. Grocery clerks, janitors, meat packers and hospital staff are all essential. Often these valued members of our community are most reliant on public transportation. Agencies will need to increase their investments in critical public transportation. COVID-19 has illustrated how important reliable and safe public transportation is to keep essential services operational in a crisis.
The pandemic has highlighted an equity issue for those who are now expected to work and learn from home. During this health crisis, telemedicine to places without hospitals has become a lifesaving use of technology. Many of our nation’s communities lack access to the broadband connectivity required to connect to one another during an ongoing pandemic.
Federal funding will likely become available for infrastructure projects aimed at increasing broadband connectivity, helping to close gaps in access to education, work and healthcare. Transportation agencies have a role to play in providing broadband just as they have provided roadways that connect every corner of the country.
Looking to the Future
At Burns & McDonnell, we have assisted public agencies big and small in understanding the infrastructure needs of a rapidly changing future. While it was hard to predict the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have helped put public plans in place for similar crisis. Our communities will come through this challenge. Those who acknowledge and embrace what will be different will be more successful moving forward.
This pandemic can be a global pivot point. Difficult conversations are ahead to determine what crucial infrastructure needs will need to be addressed to prepare for an uncertain future. There are opportunities in the challenges ahead. Projects that create open community spaces, recognize that public transportation is essential and expand broadband access to all are good places to start. These types of projects will also likely draw federal funding and reflect a new post-pandemic reality.