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How can the infrastructure bill help advance racial justice in America?

Infrastructure projects in the past have torn apart underprivileged communities. Here’s how state and local governments can fix that

April 20, 2022

America’s infrastructure has a problem, and it’s not just potholes or trains that don’t run on time. For decades, infrastructure projects have actually hurt communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, building a highway or rail line down the middle to split a neighborhood in two, or favoring wealthier communities when removing lead pipes. But the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—the federal government’s biggest infrastructure investment since the New Deal—is earmarking a significant portion of its $550 billion in new spending for states and municipalities to focus on these underserved communities to help repair or replace roads, bridges, water pipes and more.

How does the IIJA—and how can government officials—ensure that new infrastructure projects prioritize racial justice and provide equal access to transportation, clean drinking water and more? Find out in this episode of Building Places, where host James Cook interviews Maria Lehman, President Elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and Josephine Tucker, who leads JLL’s clean energy and infrastructure practice.

James Cook: [00:00:00] America's infrastructure things like roads, bridges, water, pipes. It's not great. In fact, the American society of civil engineers, ASC. They released a report card in March. They graded it as C minus. But there is hope on the horizon. The infrastructure, investment and jobs act is the federal government's biggest infrastructure investment. Since the new deal.

But as we're beginning this huge national project, we've got to remember our history. Infrastructure projects in the past have often ignored. And hurt communities of color and low income neighborhoods. For example, think about that super highway or that railroad track that split a vibrant neighborhood in half.

So now we've got $550 billion in new spending, and we've got to avoid making those mistakes that we did in the past. How do we do it? Today, we're going to find out. We're talking with Maria Lehman, president elect of the American society of civil engineers. And Josephine Tucker who leads J L L's clean energy and infrastructure practice.

This is building places where we look at the world of commercial real estate through the eyes of the experts that study it every day. My name is James Cook. I research real estate for J L L.

Maria Lehman: [00:01:27] I'm Maria Lehman. I am the, business leader for infrastructure, for GHD in the United States. And I am also the president elect of the American society of civil engineers. I'll be taking over as the president in October.

Josephine Tucker: [00:01:41] So I'm Josephine Tucker and I lead clean energy and infrastructure for Jones Lang LaSalle, but I've spent about 15 years working in the civil engineering sectors. The public sector for engineering firms and more recently for a management consulting firm.

James Cook: [00:01:58] what's wrong and what needs to be fixed.

Maria Lehman: [00:02:01] in all forms of infrastructure, there's 17 categories. we have not seen the federal government step up on their role and for decades, state local governments added to the funding. but much of the infrastructure is two and three times its useful life at this point. And so it's really important that we look at each class. And figure out what our best plan moving forward is. But also to remember that it's a system of systems and it's the weakest link that makes all of it go down. So with the passage of the, infrastructure, investment and jobs act, do you feel like we might be in a position now to start fixing a lot of these.

Maria Lehman: [00:02:41] it's a start. when we looked at the gaps of where public and private. All levels is for that infrastructure versus what the needs are. The gap was 2.6 trillion over 10 years, which is 1.3 trillion over five, and we added 550 billion. So we got 42% of the money we needed assuming no inflation.

Now we all know, we're seeing inflation much more so in the last six months than we have in years, It's focusing on things that can really move the needle. It's a more systemic approach to various types of infrastructure. and it's looking at things like reuniting communities, workforce development, justice and equity in a way that it's not been looked at before.

And so we don't want to make the same mistakes we did when we built the interstate highway system, for example, for those dollars is going to be. A little bit more difficult, but more intentional. And I think, well, achieve better outcomes, but we all have to have that, in mind

Maria Lehman: [00:03:40] It's really nice to me that there's been a lot of thought, in how things came through. I've been in the business now for over 40 years and I've seen a lot of issues and it's never been a systemic approach, I'll give you one example, looking at the lead pipe replacement.

for services to homes, there's 15 billion, the need is 60. of all the spending in this bill, the one that means the most to me is that because if you're in a poor household, you're not thinking about, pushing on your landlord to get that lead pipe replacement done Led is one of three heavy metals that once it's in your body, it never leaves. And so that child is going to have issues throughout their life. and it's always been the homeowner or the person there that has.

Take care of it. they may not be in a position to. And so this is kind of an admission that there are certain things that really are the obligation to do because of what it means for the future.

James Cook: [00:04:35] what are some things. Infrastructure projects in the past, got wrong. The impacted communities in negative ways.

a lot of infrastructure, whether it be a roads and bridges or rail lines, tended to separate neighborhoods because they didn't go through the well-heeled neighborhoods they separated people from water because for example, if you're putting a rail line in or a road line, and it was in a wetland, which we didn't know better, that was property, nobody could build on.

Maria Lehman: [00:05:05] So let's do something there and now we've lost coastal resilience because of that, So it's not just social impacts, but also environmental impacts by, not paying attention to the heartbeat of the planet, as well as. Human heartbeats. those are, were communities in areas that did not have advocacy at the time. And we really have to think about that, bringing stakeholders to the table about what they want to see and how they want to see it happen is something we really have to take in.

Josephine Tucker: [00:05:32] Yeah. when you think about the entire system of system, Of infrastructure that we have in the U S it's going to be very hard undo 50 or a hundred years of. Somewhat ignorant. Somebody even say, discriminatory planning and infrastructure development. And in some cases that's been very, very harmful as you, pointed out to both communities and habitats, it's going to be very difficult for us to untangle that web and right.

All the wrongs of the past. what we can do is plan intentionally moving forward, which is what I think is so encouraging about the bill as we see it and, executive order, the justice 40 program, another great example.

these are performance-based planning approaches are inclusive of social, you know, racial equity factors that will then make sure that we're tracking where those dollars go And trying to write some of those wrongs or at least building new differently.

Maria Lehman: [00:06:27] Josephine, you hit a really great topic there. The whole idea of performance-based planning. I'd like to say performance-based delivery to, if you look at how, typically a municipality, whether it be local state or face. Does their work. they have all these prescriptive specs, you're going to build in this spot and you're going to use this material on this kind of weld and this kind of seat.

there's no way to unleash innovation instead of saying, I need you to bridge from here to there. I need you to have this much opening, whether it's for a stream or for a roadway or rail. and I need it to last for a hundred years, based on all these specifications for various materials and types of work, go do it. then you unleash innovation. Then you come up with creative ways to solve it really time to unleash and let people do some things that will bring the lifecycle costs down while providing community benefit.

Josephine Tucker: [00:07:20] I would even take it one step further and say, we should be focused on outcomes. It's not even prescribe that we need a bridge and let them whatever they want with the bridge design. Let's say that we want the goal is to reduce congestion or the goal is flood mitigation.

And however you get that. you're absolutely right. The, the civil engineering world is ripe for disruption. I also think that, what I have seen even in just the last five years, the. Innovation in data and analytics is going to be such a powerful opportunity for us to have a hockey stick approach to that innovation. We have information at our fingertips now that was never available when we were coming up, Now you can crowdsource ideas from all over the world.

James Cook: [00:08:02] So there's money, in the new infrastructure and jobs act specifically targeted towards equity. how does that work?

Josephine Tucker: [00:08:11] there's money going towards certain asset classes or certain types of things. And then there, is language in the bill that says consideration must be given to XYZ. In addition to that, there is an executive order called justice 40, which is actually forcing all of the public agencies at the federal level who deal with infrastructure DOE HUD DOD.

Josephine Tucker: [00:08:34] To come up with a methodology for how they're defining the areas and the communities they serve and how they would go about calculating the accrual of 40% of that programmatic spending to disadvantaged communities. so I think it's really important that we kind recognize.

The way in which people are disadvantaged in different infrastructure systems like access the way that you would measure that, define that and make sure that you spend dollars towards addressing that problem very different than how you might the disadvantage of somebody, in a water system or in an energy system.

it's a heavy lift to try to come up with all of those metrics and then to, completely re-engineer the way that these programs are organized and the way that the dollars flow down to state and local entities. I do think it's a necessary step, because if we just talk about allocation at the top line, in terms of dollars, we're not going to address the problem at the grassroots.

And that's why I think there is a linkage to performance-based planning. it's hard, but we have to do.

Maria Lehman: [00:09:44] earlier this month, participated in a round table, relative to IHA and moving forward. and it was transportation. AC is going to do four of these, And there was a lot more question asking and listening than there was. prescriptive. So to me, you know, how do we handle some of the issues for example, with procurement or how do we handle equity in the community? what ideas do you have for workforce development?

they are really doing listening sessions for what boots on the ground, see, and want to be able to change. That is a very. New way of the federal government and state governments to go about their business. We're trying from the bottom up to understand what it is, what's the problem we're trying to solve and how do we holistically solve it?

James Cook: [00:10:30]

For folks listening who have some role to play in all of this, what advice you have?

Maria Lehman: [00:10:38] When people see that the company walks the talk or the agency walks the talk. You have a much different dynamic. and from a community standpoint, I've many times said we may have maybe a little bit more junior person to go to a public outreach meeting, That is someone of color or a woman, or, something that's going to fit better in that meeting. you have to look like the community you're working with.

otherwise you're an outsider. so if we're going to change this from a community basis on what we deliver, as well as, the profession in itself to lead, we're not going to do that until we look like the communities we serve.

feel like we agree on what the problem is, enough being done now to fix that. I have never seen this kind of spotlight on equity issues. it is a part of, weekly or even daily in my own company with my clients in the market, And so that gives me a ton of hope. it's good enough today. It's probably not good enough tomorrow. Cause things are changing. And we have so many problems to address. And so I think we have to be very diligent we have to be very purpose-driven to make sure that it keeps momentum up.

James Cook: [00:11:49] I feel like I've learned a lot just in our short, time So I want to thank you both for your time today. It's been a fascinating conversation.

Maria Lehman: [00:11:56] Thanks for the invitation.

Josephine Tucker: [00:11:58] Thank you.

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This episode of building places was produced by Randy Hofbauer. Our theme music was written and performed by Joel Caracci.