Updated: Mar 27, 2020
by Sam Potts
World events, trends, and policies not only affect our daily lives, but also our civil engineering industry. COVID-19 is the newest pandemic to humanity, and its effects will be widespread in our profession, both now and in the future .
Looking back on history, viruses have made their mark. There are reports of flu symptoms going back to 6000 BCE. Smallpox was brought to the Americas in 1500's by Europeans and wiped out indigenous populations. The influenza pandemic of 1918 was so contagious that it spread to the Arctic and remote Pacific Islands, and killed between 20-50% of the world population. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) rapidly spread in the 1980's and continues to infect millions of people worldwide today. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were other coronavirus outbreaks in 2002, and 2012/2015, respectively. While the list can go on, its important to note that viruses are a byproduct of biodiversity and genetic mutations. They are living and changing as much as we are. The 2019 novel coronavirus is a new virus to humanity: it is not the first, and certainly will not be the last.
The first and probably most visible effect to civil engineering has been to transportation systems. There have been images published of empty freeways in urban centers traditionally plagued by gridlock. People with jobs in essential industries that still require commuting to work will have a huge time savings as they do not hit traffic. Similarly, emergency responders will be able to arrive at sites quicker and safer. COVID-19's supply chain interruptions will decrease travel costs, from lower gasoline prices at the pump, to cheaper airfare tickets. Lastly, with clear roads, local transportation maintenance crews may take advantage and increase maintenance activity, or perhaps endeavor on activities such as pavement repair that typically would not be allowed due to the large public inconveniences they would cause.
However, these transportation networks come at a cost. Easier movement for people allows disease to spread just as easily, hence why sheltering-in-place is critical at the moment. Public transit has been one of the hardest hit sectors. Fare revenues ordinarily do not allow for transit operations to break even, so it is possible that the dip in revenues will hurt future service. With less cars on the road, less gasoline is being bought. States and the federal government rely on gas taxes paid at the pump to fund roadway and highway maintenance. Airlines have also been hit just as hard as transit.
Industry sectors are asking the federal government for funding assistance:
$10 billion - Airports
$13 billion - Transit
$1 billion - Amtrak
Here in California, construction (and especially housing construction) has been deemed as an essential service. However, different sectors and different states will see different effects. In the realm of public works, some states and/or contractors may see empty roads as an opportunity to accelerate project schedules. Others are continuing normal operations, and PennDOT has suspended all construction activity due to COVID-19. We may also see more participation in bids, as contractors try to get backlog in an uncertain financial market.
In the private sector, construction may see delays as investors pull funding out of projects. While most people are scouring department stores for toilet paper, contractors are purchasing equipment, as equipment vendors have seen an increased demand. Throughout construction, losses in 2020 revenues may delay or cancel future projects that were in the pipeline.
The Associated General Contractors of America conducted a survey of 909 contractors from March 17-19. They found:
28% reporting project halts or delays
16% reporting material, equipment, or part shortages
18% reporting government worker shortages
11% reporting craftworker shortages
8% reporting notification that a person may have infected a job site
Water Treatment Infrastructure
Water treatment systems are one of the key public health tools in developed countries. They help prevent outbreaks beyond viruses, including those caused by bacteria and protozoa. However, these facilities require workers to provide smooth and consistent operation. Many water and wastewater utility agencies have contingency plans to continue critical operations with reduced staff. While all humans are at risk of contracting COVID-19, water and wastewater plant workers are not at an increased risk due to the nature of their work.
Current disinfection conditions in Wastewater Treatment Facilities are expect to be sufficient... such as oxidation with hypochlorite or peracetic acid, as well as inactivation by ultraviolet irradiation. - US OSHA
Water service in America still has room for improvement. ASCE's 2017 National Infrastructure Report Card gave drinking water infrastructure a D and wastewater infrastructure a D+. Americans need cleaner water and more reliable service.
COVID-19 has already had an effect on the environment. People are driving less, and non-essential industrial complexes are scaling back operations and therefore reducing pollution. While we will not be able to quantify the reduction in air pollution until the crisis is over, there will certainly be a public health benefit; one 2015 study reported the air pollution alone was responsible for 1.5 million deaths in China. China is also halting wildlife trade due to the novel coronavirus' traced origins to a wildlife market in Wuhan. However, this halt is only believed to be temporary.
Companies are decentralizing supply chains, such as grocery stores switching to more locally sources foods. The reduced shipping distance translates into reduced fuel consumption and therefore reduced pollutant emissions.
With industrial activity down, companies may feel pressure to make up for lost revenue due to COVID-19, and may ramp up production after the crisis. This may counteract emissions savings during their downtime. In areas that currently have air pollution problems, some studies have shown that the poorer quality air may aid in disease transmission and augment symptoms. With hospitals and urgent cares full, we will increases in medical and biohazardous waste.
The effects on air pollution are already being seen, even from space:
New data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite reveal the decline of air pollution, specifically nitrogen dioxide emissions, over Italy. This reduction is particularly visible in northern Italy which coincides with its nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. - ESA
Federal Emergency Aid Measures
The US federal government is playing a critical role in providing aid to patients and industries, while establishing policies to prevent spread of COVID-19. A Phase 1 bill (H.R. 6074) was passed on March 6, 2020. This bill provides $8.3 billion in emergency funds for loans for small businesses, grants for local public health departments, and provides funds for medical supplies and affordable vaccines.
A Phase 2 bill (H.R. 6201) was passed on March 18, 2020. It expands unemployment insurance, ensures that workers get paid sick leave, expands food assistance programs, and ensures free testing for COVID-19.
A Phase 3 bill (S.3548) was passed on March 27, 2020. The package provides up to $1,200 for those making under $75,000 according to their 2018 tax return. People who made between $75,000 and $99,000 would see a smaller check, while anyone above the $99,000 would not receive this stimulus money. In addition, taxpayers would receive $500 per child. Also included are $300 billion for small business loans, $150 billion for large business loans, and $58 billion specifically for airline companies. The bill will also temporarily halts federal student loan payments.
Overall, Phase 3 injects over $2 trillion into the national economy.
Senator John Barrasso, R-WY, wants his infrastructure bill attached to this third stimulus package, which would authorize $287 billion for roads and bridge over five years. A comprehensive infrastructure plan would provide a long-lasting and permanent benefit to the national economy.
Long-term, our GDP improves… we can borrow at record-low interest rates… and minimize the negative impact on our debt. - Senator Bill Cassidy, R-LA
While government investment has bipartisan support, the two major political parties differ on means and methods. Congress has not give infrastructure much priority in the light of other pressing issues. However, it is important to note that infrastructure investment has been proven to have high returns-on-investment; therefore, it makes fiscal sense to invest now.
Government investment may see impacts due to decreased overall 2020 tax revenues from sources across the board and increased budget allocation for other government programs more closely related to the coronavirus, such as healthcare. These new allocations will ultimately affect the funding sources for future civil engineering projects.
Business and Employment
The most prevalent change to civil engineers who have been deemed non-essential has been the workplace switch from the office to home. We are using new technological tools, such as cloud and remote data access, virtual private networking, group chat, and videoconferencing. The reality is that most organizations are getting the technological capabilities tested by COVID-19. However, some organizations have yet to make the switch from local file systems to cloud computing. This can range from a few gigabytes to one case of 400 terabytes across 60 offices needing to be transferred to the cloud.
Some employers are using a half-and-half system, where half of the normal employees are in the office, and the other half are either working for home or have time off. This system allows for employees to work in the office while also assisting in social distancing protocols.
Other employers are fearful that allowing employees to work from home will create the precedent that allows them to do so; from here some are giving their non-essential staff paid leave all the way to a temporary layoff.
Those who work in the field are mostly still out in the field, but required to exercise social distancing, that is if their local health authority has not halted construction work.
Overall, COVID-19 highlights the need for contingency plans in the civil engineering industry, so we are prepared for the next crisis.
Friday, March 27, 10:57 AM: The House of Representatives passed the Phase 3 Coronavirus stimulus package. Article was updated accordingly. The bill is now awaiting the president's signature. Reauthorization of surface transportation programs was not included in Phase 3, but congress has signaled that a Phase 4 bill may arise and include long-term economic investments.
Friday, March 27, 1:49 PM: President Trump has signed the Phase 3 package. Article was updated accordingly.
This article was originally developed for a CSUN ASCE video presentation: