The Senate- passed infrastructure bill working its way through Congress funds critical upgrades to systems throughout the nation and West Virginia.
With investments to improve roads and bridges, railroads, power grids, broadband, water systems, cybersecurity and pipeline safety, this bipartisan legislation is a historic opportunity to create jobs and improve quality of life for generations of Americans.
But one vital element of infrastructure was largely overlooked: buildings. Investing in the places where we spend most of our time — schools, homes, hospitals and public buildings — is just as important to daily life and economic growth.
To understand how, just take a look at our schools. In its yearly infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers scored America’s overall infrastructure a C-minus, and schools scored a dismal D-plus. A 2020 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that 54% of public schools need at least one major building system update — with repair or replacement of aging heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems at the top of the list.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes all too clear just how important ventilation is to our kids’ health — to say nothing of creating an environment conducive to learning. But most schools can’t afford these repairs. According to Society of Civil Engineers, a 31% cut in funding since 2008, as well as a $38 billion annual funding gap, are major factors blocking needed school improvements.
West Virginia is no exception. This need is reinforced every 10 years in West Virginia, when county school systems complete their Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plans. In 2010, those plans detailed a $2.5 billion need in West Virginia. Although the final figure from the 2020 plans is not yet available, officials anticipate the need has grown to $3 billion or $4 billion.
The trend is clear — and so are the effects. Every year, we hear about schools being closed temporarily because of inadequate HVAC systems and mold — or permanently, because of structural failures.
In many cases, West Virginia students are being educated in facilities that were constructed for their grandparents. While the infrastructure package did include some modest investments to make federal buildings and schools more energy efficient — which will help our school districts save on their energy bills — it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $870 billion the Society of Civil Engineers estimates schools will need by 2029 to move from a D-plus rating to a B.
Schools make up only 0.4% of total funding in the Senate’s infrastructure package.
To help West Virginia students prepare for 21st-century jobs, we need to continue to demand better for our communities.
Schools are just one example of buildings serving our communities. During the pandemic, public buildings were repurposed throughout West Virginia for COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution. Who could have anticipated that the renovated and expanded Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center’s most significant function since its completion would be to help combat a public health crisis?
From 2010 to 2020, West Virginia experienced 11 extreme-weather events, costing the state up to $2 billion in damages. Clearly, we need public buildings that can be used for emergency shelters, food and cleaning-supply distribution, feeding and warming stations, as well as testing and vaccinations.
The Senate infrastructure bill includes weatherization assistance, to make homes more resilient, and funding to support the implementation of stronger building codes. This is an important step forward, but it’s only a down payment on the investment we need to ensure America’s buildings are prepared to weather the 21st century.
When it comes to quality of life, there’s no question that public buildings are essential. We might use roads and bridges to get to them, but we spend a significant portion of our lives in public buildings: schools, rural health clinics and hospitals, municipal buildings, county courthouses, libraries and civic centers.
We are all proud of the natural beauty of the Mountain State. We need to take that same pride in our public buildings. If we want to get people to stay in West Virginia, or make the decision to relocate here, we need to provide them with high-quality infrastructure beyond transportation.
Public buildings are infrastructure, and they are too important to be left out of this strategic investment in our future.