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Infrastructure Plan Could Make Up for Lost Years, But Still Won't Meet Country's Needs

Pratt Professor Henry Petroski says US remains behind other countries in modern infrastructure

Abstract art of a city network connection.

President Joe Biden’s $2.5 trillion ”Build Back Better” spending proposal includes $621 billion to renew America’s transportation infrastructure.

According to Henry Petroski, emeritus professor of civil engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, the country’s needs are many, and not all of them are addressed in the plan, including high speed rail.

“Our country's roads and rails are embarrassing compared to those in countries like Japan, Germany, and China,” Petroski said. “In particular, we have no comparable high speed rail.”

The Highway Trust Fund, fed by gasoline and diesel taxes, has been the funding source for roads and transit projects since 1956, but has been in the red since 2008. Petroski said the new spending bill should include a solution for the trust fund.

“Promoting electric vehicle use over this is counterproductive,” he said. “We need a new model to replace federal gas tax as source.”

The proposal also promises updates to the nation’s power grid. Petroski said placing power lines underground – standard practice in many modern economies –should be a priority.

“Burying electric cables in storm prone areas where recovery from outages takes weeks and more,” he said. “This would also save the expense of trimming trees around power lines, which is environmentally reckless. Trees help in carbon capture.”

The plan emphasizes green energy and decarbonization, but Petroski said that approach is not without risk.

“Funding solar and wind at too high a level risks creating an unreliable grid in the long run,” he said.

Petroski’s work focuses on invention and the role of failure in successful design. If the bill passes, he said it’s possible the initiatives could also spur innovation in engineering, “depending on how money for the National Science Foundation and jobs related to research and development is spent.

“In all categories,” he said, “learning from past failures rather than extrapolating from successes should be the model.”