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From the Editor: Will Politics Erode Infrastructure Standards?

Robert Schickel on July 29, 2022 - in Articles, Column

My wife and I are planning a road trip from the Midwest to the East Coast. Since we now own an electric vehicle that comes with free charging at certain stations, our road trip will have zero emissions and no fuel costs.

Some things are taken for granted when traveling from one place to the next. Some consistency in products and environment is easier to deal with and also convenient. That’s one of the major advantages of commercial chain stores; you pretty much know what to expect from a certain business, whether it’s located in Indiana or North Carolina.

This also is true of infrastructure facilities, particularly for transportation. When crossing a state line, it’s anticipated that lane widths will be the same. The consistency of signage helps us all recognize—even with a short glance—what the message is. Such consistency makes us more comfortable and safer during our travels.

Today’s Civics Lesson

The federal government provides such infrastructure consistency through standards, guidelines and laws. These federal standards are not made up by a few people in Washington, D.C.; they’re developed through tests, trials and experiments by experts from all over the country (and other countries in some cases). Congress then creates committees, task forces and agencies to develop standards, policies and procedures, which it then empowers to enforce on our behalf. The results are a safer transportation network, a cleaner environment and so on.

Some of the recent rulings of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) should concern us in the Informed Infrastructure world. To continue our civics lesson, these justices are appointed—not elected as members of Congress are. The Court is charged with ensuring equal justice under the law, using the U.S. Constitution as its basis.

Recently, SCOTUS ruled against state jurisdiction (gun control in New York) and for state jurisdiction (overturning Roe v. Wade). So, predicting what will come next becomes impossible. But more importantly, these new restrictions that affect virtually everyone in the United States were decided by six people who were not elected by the general population.

Weakened Regulations

However, the ruling that should concern engineers is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruling. The Supreme Court limited the power of the federal government to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants. The ruling doesn’t affect the power of the states. Some states will continue to restrict emissions responsibly, but others will not, especially those that perceive an economic loss due to existing restrictions. The United States will no longer have a consistent policy to lead other nations against global warming. This decision to take away the power from the EPA given to them by Congress (the people we elected to represent us) was destroyed by six people.

Cecillia Swanson, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Columbia University Medical Center, stated in an interview with WNYC host Michael Hill: “The fact that we have language now that is prioritizing economic and private interest over the interest of the health of communities is deeply concerning.

“The U.S. really needs to be leading on this to be coming through on their commitments to the Paris agreement,” she added. “It looks really bad that we are fighting our own justice departments to be able to make good on the fact that we are inflicting a lot of harm on people around the world and in our own country.”

What’s Next?

Equally important, this decision sets the stage for limitations on other federal agencies. I may sound like an alarmist, but what happens when the Department of Transportation becomes limited in providing consistent safety standards? I’m not convinced that each state is capable of providing its own safety standards along the highway. Certainly, some states would cut corners while others would remain the same. But without the research provided by the federal government, we will not progress as efficiently as we could.

A recent headline said the Department of Transportation sent $5.7 million in emergency relief funding to repair flood damage in Montana. What if this was restricted? The headline might read “Montana Sets Up GoFundMe Site for Flood Damage Assistance.”

What if the Department of the Interior or Energy or other department loses its ability to provide the national policies that provide for a consistent environment for all citizens of America? I wrote earlier that future decisions made by the Supreme Court are unpredictable, but what we’ve seen lately should be a major issue when it comes time to elect your representatives and senators at all levels. 

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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