6th March 2024 10 min read
Chief Executive Albert Manifold discusses the future of US infrastructure and his plans to unlock growth through innovation and collaboration.

Four decades ago, the US experienced a billion-dollar natural disaster once every four months. Now it sees one every three weeks, according to the recent US National Climate Assessment. Indeed, headlines last year – from the tropical storm that overwhelmed California last summer, to the October flooding in New York, to the record rainfall in the Pacific Northwest in December – are stark reminders that much of our infrastructure is not up to the challenges of a changing climate.

Oldcastle Infrastructure, A CRH Company, designed innovative precast solutions for the floating bridge over Lake Washington.

This vulnerability to a changing climate underscores how our aging bridges, roads, railways and power plants are constraining growth rather than facilitating it. Significant upgrades to water management, coastal protection, fire management, transportation networks and more are needed to climate-proof the hardware of society and protect property and people from more frequent and intense floods, wildfires and storms. This can only be done with a compelling vision and the boots on the ground to make it happen.

Across America, a massive effort has begun to replace these outdated structures with new ones. Climate is but one factor driving this Infrastructure Renaissance. From medications to microchips, the pandemic exposed bottlenecks across the economy, some of which are still being felt today. As a result, supply chains are being streamlined and de-risked. This has meant reshoring vital industries such as technology, automobiles and pharmaceuticals back to the US. This reindustrialisation will shorten lead times and ensure availability of critical products.

ICON Materials, A CRH Company, delivered this pavement rehabilitation project at the Port of Seattle.

Another trend is the rapid pace of digital transformation that was supercharged by the pandemic. The rise of video streaming, the sudden shift to remote work, and now the rapid advent of generative AI are driving an insatiable appetite for more powerful computers, faster networks and bigger data centres. Cutting-edge microchips demand mind-bogglingly complex factories. 5G phone networks need three times as many base stations as 4G. Hyperscale data centres require millions of square feet and enough electricity to power a small town. All this work is only getting started – much more still needs to be built.

The economic effects of this building boom are apparent. US demand for construction workers is soaring, with the industry adding nearly 200,000 jobs last year. Spending on US data centre construction topped $20 billion in 2022. Advanced new factories, high-tech distribution centres and renewable energy plants are breathing new life into communities left behind by globalisation. The uptake of renewable energy has been astonishing by any measure. The US installed 6.1 gigawatts of solar capacity in just the first quarter of 2023 – more than the UK, France and Italy installed in all of the previous year combined. The scaffolding of modern society is being upgraded, upleveled and upsized.

But further progress isn’t guaranteed. The Infrastructure Renaissance could be short-lived or fail to reach its full potential unless key issues are addressed. First among these are outdated regulations that hinder development where it is needed most. This is perhaps strikingly evident in the housing shortage, which is emerging as a widespread, chronic problem in the US as well as Europe. Freddie Mac estimates that, nationwide, America faces a shortfall of 3.8 million homes, yet new projects often wither amid a thicket of red tape. Stakeholders must find a way to balance legitimate environmental and social concerns against the needs of a growing population.

Ash Grove, A CRH Company, cement plant in Foreman, Arkansas.

Another priority must be to encourage bipartisan cooperation. So far, infrastructure has been a rare topic around which both sides of the political aisle have worked together to pass meaningful legislation such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and the CHIPS Act. Together with the Inflation Reduction Act, these programmes have created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen America’s manufacturing might while rebuilding the country’s roads, bridges and airports. This strategic focusing of federal funds should reshape the US economy for the next decade no matter who sits in the White House or which party controls Congress.

Third, America is built on innovation, and an innovative country needs innovative infrastructure. From my front-row seat running the world’s leading construction materials company, I can say that I’ve never seen so much creativity and cutting-edge thinking in the industry as today. This runs from low-carbon methods of making cement and steel, to super-efficient smart buildings, to solutions such as a “bridge in a box” where modular components are assembled on-site in a matter of days. Industry leaders must continue to embrace new ideas so we can build more quickly, cleanly and safely.

The American Infrastructure Renaissance is off to a promising start. It is already transforming our world, creating good jobs, and delivering real benefits to millions of people today and for decades to come. Its continued success hinges on making progress in policy, politics and innovation to bring about not only a once-in-a-generation business opportunity but also a sustainable, innovative future with opportunity for all.

Learn more about CRH’s US business and capabilities: CRH in the Americas.