Why infrastructure matters
And how we can rebuild faster, and for less
BY MICHAEL DELACEY
For U.S. infrastructure, the bad news never ends. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a “D” grade. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum ranked it in 24th place, behind Bahrain, Barbados and Malaysia. It has a major impact on our country’s economic prowess, and job creation. Every single American uses it. And every single American pays for it. So why, in a debate on domestic issues and economic policy, did neither presidential candidate address the drastic decline of our national infrastructure–and how they’re going to fix it?
Yes, it’s tough to come out for the building of bridges and roads as a presidential candidate, because to voters it sounds like tax hikes and government spending. But with some of our nation’s most iconic infrastructure badly in need of repairs, retrofits and updates–from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, to the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Brooklyn Bridge–it is more important than ever for the U.S. to dig deeper into its infrastructure issues. It’s not all doom and gloom: with the right
combination of strong leaders, new technologies and public-private partnerships, U.S. infrastructure might just have a shot.
Strong leaders will have an impact
So what do we need to do to get U.S. infrastructure back on top? This is where our presidential candidates come into play–and why the recent debate was all the more disappointing. In a recent “State of the Industry” survey of more than 300 industry professionals directly involved in infrastructure projects, 54% of respondents stated that we need “strong leaders” to get us back on track. Not more taxpayer dollars, not more access to innovative tools, but stronger leaders. While the majority of survey respondents said they had most confidence in President Obama having the strongest positive impact on U.S. infrastructure, it was clear in the recent debate that he wasn’t willing to stick his neck out for infrastructure.
That sentiment is underscored when we examine the difficulties Congress has had in passing badly needed infrastructure legislation in the past four years. One example? July’s $105 billion MAP-21 transportation bill funding the building and maintenance of roads, bridges and highways. It took several 90-day extensions and no less than three years to pass, and while it offers a boost it still only scratches the surface.
When it comes to funding that not only maintains our existing infrastructure but also lays the groundwork for our future needs–creating much-needed jobs in the process–we have to do better. We simply aren’t reacting fast enough to our growing needs for infrastructure improvements, particularly as more of the population moves to urban areas. The U.S. can’t take three years to approve one transportation bill. We need to react more quickly in order to keep up with the growing demands on our infrastructure, and we need to leverage the advancements in technology allowing us to address these needs as efficiently and sustainably as possible.
New technologies hold the key
In the State of the Industry survey, experts specifically ranked bridges as in the “worst” state of decline, over roads and airports. Airports were actually voted as in the “best” state, though 56% of the industry professionals surveyed agreed that airports still need additional infrastructure funding. The takeaway: even infrastructure ranked in the “best state” needs help. The list of projects that need attention only grows longer; I met recently with thought leaders at some of the country’s most prominent engineering and construction firms to make a “Top 10” list of the most critical projects, and we couldn’t narrow it to just 10.
Our nation’s infrastructure decline becomes more troubling when you consider the bevy of technological advances at our fingertips. One of the most promising is building information modeling (BIM), which leverages advanced modeling technologies to create accurate, high-quality 3D models of projects and guides more intelligent building and design. The benefits of BIM are well documented. A 2012 SmartMarket Report by McGraw Hill found that users of BIM have found it to significantly improve project processes, reduce costly project rework that can carry a price tag of up to 20% of the total project cost, and cut the time it takes to re-build or build roads, bridges, airports and buildings in half.
It’s not enough to simply build and repair, though; thanks to the power of these technologies, we have the ability to conduct predictive analysis on designs to evaluate infrastructure performance years down the road. This is critical, considering that some of our bridges, including the Brooklyn Bridge, are more than 125 years old.
Technology could radically impact our ability to get our infrastructure back on track, while also reducing the cost to taxpayers – especially if we start to demand this approach across the board for all projects.
Policy & P3 partnerships
There have been indicators in national legislation that we might begin to see additional focus on infrastructure–which is why it is so surprising that the recent debate did not address the topic at all. Despite the long haul to get the highway bill passed, it does ultimately provide specific provisions designed to help build stronger infrastructure projects. For example, MAP-21 has a provision that provides states with greater incentives for using advanced technologies, including 3D modeling. In recognizing the importance of using innovative technology to improve project delivery and contracting methods, this legislation is a step in the right direction.
Public-private partnerships are another key opportunity we have to explore. The U.S. is one of the only leading nations without a national plan for public-private partnerships (P3) for infrastructure projects or a national infrastructure bank to finance large-scale projects and take advantage of private capital. The idea has been on the table, most recently proposed by President Obama as part of his jobs plan, but so far it has fallen on deaf ears. If as a country and an industry we’re able to make the case for additional attention and streamlined processes that can significantly reduce costs and waste often associated with the construction process, we can also attract private investors who see the return on investment in building greener, more sustainable and efficient structures.
No true improvements can be made, though, without the support of our nation’s leaders, and that’s why it is important that the “infrastructure issue” make its way back into public discourse–and the campaign trail. BXM
Michael DeLacey is president of Microdesk.