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The evolution of roads to support the automobile has made the last century of economic development possible. To keep pace with the emerging needs and widespread adoption of connected, electric and autonomous vehicles (CEAVs), as well as the ever-increasing population density of cities and our reliance on the internet and cellular services, the nation’s infrastructure must continue to evolve.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a good first step to help tackle the current state of our nation’s infrastructure, allocating $100 billion for repairing roads, bridges and highways, $65 billion to improve broadband internet access and $7.5 billion to build electric vehicle charging stations. We need to use these funds as a down payment to prove America’s ability to deliver innovative and lasting improvements for the next generation.

Reimagining roads as networks that can support CEAVs affords us the potential and adaptability to meet the needs of vehicles, cities and people over the next century. It also enables the roads to be financially independent, so maintaining them doesn’t have to rely on insufficient and temporary solutions. Smart roadways are a specific example of how collaboration between public agencies, the EPC industry, public-private partnership (P3) investment institutions, network service providers and emerging technologies can move transportation infrastructure into the 21st century. Contractors built America, and they have a significant role to play in its next phase.

Transforming infrastructure

By transforming roads into an open-access digital networking platform, public infrastructure will help drive the economic development of our cities the same way it did 100 years ago when we first started paving roads. This movement will also catalyze a massive reinvestment in our infrastructure, similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority or Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, established in 1933, provides electricity to more than 100 local power companies and industrial customers. They’re able to do this using revenue generated from sales of electricity, not taxpayer funding. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized building highways throughout America to support the growing number of automobiles. The Interstate Highway System it created is one of the biggest public works projects in the nation’s history and foundational to America’s postwar economic development. These initiatives put millions of people to work in high-paying jobs while preparing cities and states for the next generation of mobility, driving the adoption of existing advanced construction techniques and reinvigorating local economies.

Bearing all of this in mind, adopting smart infrastructure enables us to address infrastructure improvements and is necessary to support CEAVs, cities and people. By adopting this new way of thinking, contractors will be empowered to grow their revenue and profits without increasing their overhead or overcommitting their labor force.

The Kiewit approach

Peter Kiewit Sons’ telecommunications venture with Kiewit Diversified Group, which became Level 3, is a good example of what we can accomplish with smart roads. One of the world’s largest internet backbone companies, Level 3 realized adding a fiber trunk was an incremental cost to Kiewit’s interstate work, so they put in fiber every chance they had. This movement became a $5 billion network that later sold to CenturyLink for $35 billion. We know this approach works, and now we need to use the same inclusive dig-once approach and advanced construction techniques to deploy modular precast, enabling digital infrastructure assets across the nation.

The benefits of modular precast include better quality assurance, increased speed of construction, enhanced safety, longer durability and reduced waste. Precast lasts four times longer than traditional asphalt construction and requires 95% less labor to install. It is a 100-year-old technique and well-proven but, like many proven accelerated construction technologies, it is sitting on the shelf largely due to outdated low-bid practices that prevent innovation.

Contractor concerns debunked

Right now, contractors spend thousands to put in a bid. Typically, only a small percentage of the projects they bid on are successful. Even when they win, they’re only getting a tiny profit margin because they’re fighting tooth and nail to be the cheapest.

A key benefit to smart infrastructure is how it enables contractors to generate recurring revenue from each project like a software or networking company. The more work smart infrastructure contractors deliver, the more they can reap the benefits of recurring revenue from smart infrastructure operations. This new source of revenue can be used to fund the company’s overhead, making the operation more profitable, more competitive (even on traditional low-bid projects), and allowing for reinvestment in modernization and expansion.

Precast requires less labor and equipment than traditional methods, allowing contractors to take on larger projects than they could under traditional approaches. It also creates the advantage of being one of the first to learn an advanced technique, enabling early adopters to take the lead over the competition. Although new technology can be intimidating, smart infrastructure is a collaborative effort between the public agency, technology provider, construction industry and P3 financing institution, and the construction workforce has the talent and work ethic to build it.

The time is now

 Contractors paved the roads and streets and strung the power networks at the turn of the century, which drove the adoption of the automobile and the industrialization that positioned America as the dominant economy in the prewar period. Contractors built highways and interstates in the postwar period and installed telecom, cable and internet services that ultimately enabled the massive technological revolutions of the last few decades, making America a superpower and the world’s dominant economy. They’ve done it before, and it’s time to do it again.

Now, contractors can rebuild America for the next century by adopting advanced and accelerated construction technologies and new business models that aren’t reliant on public funds to deliver these next-generation digital infrastructure services. Those who are forward thinking and employ new methods that enable roads to deliver much needed services and capabilities for the next generation of mobility will have larger revenues, greater profits, and recurring revenue streams that are unavailable from traditional methods.

Time doesn’t move backward, it can’t stand still, and neither can we. Instead of continuing to build for our grandparents, let’s build for our grandchildren and future generations to come.

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