Rural America as we once knew it is evolving into a different cultural, economic and political hub. COVID-19 and the “new normal” has turned hour-long commutes on the highway into a less-than-a-minute walk down the hallway from the bedroom to the laptop. Residents are fleeing from expensive urban centers to find financial refuge with more affordable housing in geographies once supported by manufacturing or agricultural industries.
These anticipated changes will require major infrastructure adjustments to allow these once-small-town economies to meet the needs of new residents. In order to create rural communities that are resilient to increasing populations and new industries, the federal government and engineering firms alike need to prepare to meet the needs of communities that work from home, require scaled infrastructure and are preparing for a new economy.
The Impact of Migration to Rural America
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Americans to examine the notion of the physical and virtual office. This shift could result in positive migration flows to rural areas where the cost of living is lower, resulting in an increased demand for broadband capacity.
Increasing rural broadband access is a social and economic amplifier. Effective broadband allows small businesses to be more efficient, increase their offerings and even scale up their business more than before. For many rural communities, new economic opportunities are just a few steps of updated infrastructure away.
In addition to broadband services, the increased migration to rural areas could also result in the need for significant infrastructure improvements. A recent report in The Economist pointed out small cites in the Rocky Mountain region are booming. The article highlights that seven of the ten fastest-growing in the country from 2015 to 2020 were in the West – impacting many small and rural communities. This growth produces stress on water systems, wastewater treatment and traffic flow. Water systems in much of rural America are already in desperate need of attention: more than 50% of water systems across the country with health-based violations serve populations of 500 or less, based on the “Investing in Rural America” article. In addition, new and expanded energy extraction projects combined with expanding renewable energy efforts have placed greater demands on roadways and transportation networks. It is not an uncommon sight to see truck convoys in west Texas transporting massive wind turbines destined for installation.
Economic Benefits for All
There are significant economic benefits that we may all share by investing in rural infrastructure. The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee published a report in June 2018, with a portion outlining the need for investments in rural infrastructure. The report emphasizes that “federal infrastructure investments would create good-paying jobs and increase economic activity.” Investment benefits to rural America may then spread to urban America where the more equitable distribution of opportunities could relieve built-up pressures on both ends of the spectrum.
Also based on the above report, a review of recent evidence finds that infrastructure investments generate $1.40 to $1.80 in additional economic activity for every dollar invested. The Center for American Progress estimates that increasing infrastructure spending by a total of $500 billion over 10 years would add 3.6 million new jobs, lower the unemployment rate by one percentage point and increase the size of the economy by three percent.
Commitment to Resiliency
New commitments are needed to meet the requirements of these changing environments and investments in rural communities are already being made to adapt to the changes we are seeing today and anticipating for tomorrow. Burgess & Niple (B&N) has a long and successful history of helping rural communities with funding, planning, design and construction phase services of critical infrastructure.