There’s no doubt that America’s infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. For decades, bridges and roadways across the United States have been badly neglected. Many of our bridges, in particular, are well beyond their intended life cycles. Not only do they pose immediate safety hazards, but they are also undermining the economy by limiting mobility in and out of the regions they serve. While there is a clear need for action, it’s not as clear how we can mobilize nationally to repair our infrastructure, or how we can pay for such a program.
As critical as it is to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, it is easier said than done. There are several challenges to overcome. The most obvious is funding. Where is the money to come from, both on a national and local level? There’s also a shortage of qualified and experienced engineering talent, particularly when it comes to fields such as bridge and highway engineering, which can take decades to master. America has ignored our bridges for so long that the new generation of experienced engineers is lacking, and the previous generation has retired. This challenge, in particular, promises to severely impede any large-scale bridge infrastructure initiative.
Paying the price
How can we pay for programs that will likely cost trillions to address? The discussion revolves around three primary approaches. The first is federal funding. This is how America has traditionally developed transportation infrastructure since the Interstate Highway System was initiated during the Eisenhower Administration when a gallon of gas was 15 cents and the tax was 1 cent per gallon. In the 65 years since the initial Interstate Highway bill was passed, the federal government has underwritten development of nearly 50,000 miles of highways that extend across the U.S. Today, the tax is fixed at 18.4 cents per gallon, the same amount since 1994.
While federal support of transportation development has continued in recent years — the most recent act providing $305 billion in highway spending was signed by President Obama just over a year ago — there is significant disagreement among legislators about how the government should pay for transportation projects. Another question is where the money should come from? The current gas tax, not adjusted for inflation for more than 20 years, is simply not sufficient. Besides, vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient. We must pay, but how?
Not content to wait for federal dollars to alleviate local challenges, several regions across the country that recognize the importance of mobility are taking matters into their own hands. For instance, recently passed Proposition 1 in the Seattle region will result in a $60 billion transit investment in the region. Similarly, in California, where a supermajority is required for new taxes, Measure M passed in Los Angeles County. Measure M will be paid for with a half-cent sales tax increase and result in a $240 billion transportation investment in LA County alone. In addition to funding transit locally, Measure M also provides capital for highway and roadway development and improvement. However, local support of infrastructure development isn’t always a sure thing. Similar tax measures failed in San Diego and San Louis Obispo Counties on the same day Measure M passed.
A third funding mechanism — public-private partnerships (P3s) — has been around since America’s beginning. One notable example is the Transcontinental Railroad. However, within the last decade, P3s have become reenergized and a modern form of P3 is being used for transit, roadway, and airports. These projects can include design, construction, ownership, financing, and maintenance, and enable agencies to deliver large projects with drastically reduced initial capital. While these partnerships can be complicated (it’s not always easy to balance the private investor’s need to generate revenue with the public interest), they can work very well in the right circumstances.
Multiple funding streams are needed to rebuild our roads and bridges, and the solution is certainly a strong combination of federal dollars, local funding, and P3s. We need all three. Some projects will be better suited to federal funding, while local underwriting or P3s will work better for others.
Another significant challenge — and one that will affect projects across the U.S. — will be a shortage of qualified talent to design projects and oversee their completion. Bridge and roadway infrastructure hasn’t been a national priority for many decades, and many firms have lost their “bench strength.” They will have to find new ways to build qualified teams that can handle large and complicated engineering projects.
It’s estimated that the infrastructure projects that need to be completed during the next few decades will require at least 50 percent more bridge and roadway engineers than we have now. But how can we hope to meet even the 50 percent target if it takes more than 15 years of training to prepare an engineer for this work?
In the short term, the answer will revolve around partnerships between engineers and engineering firms with disparate, yet complementary skills and experience. For instance, engineering firms with bridge expertise will be able to partner with others that have track expertise. Engineering firms benefit from being able to win larger projects. At the same time, clients win (as does the public they serve) by gaining access to the most qualified and experienced engineers for their projects.
While these types of partnerships are not new, technology, which has only recently been available in an effective mainstream way, makes them stronger and more effective. CAD technologies, file sharing, and videoconferencing allow engineers to have a virtual project team so the most accomplished and experienced engineers can be engaged, regardless of location.
An evolutionary infrastructure system
The push to rebuild our infrastructure doesn’t only present challenges; there are opportunities as well. One of the most important is the opportunity to apply innovation to the way we deliver infrastructure projects. So far, much of the innovation in surface transportation has come from outside the infrastructure industry.
For instance, cellular technology and global positioning allow us to optimize routes. Autonomous vehicles have arrived and are being tested. Fossil fuel-burning engines based on 100-year-old technology are being replaced with electric vehicles that can be charged using limitless solar power. Now it’s time to apply this same spirit of innovation to the roads and bridges we are building and restoring. What can we learn from outside industries that can help us create better and safer infrastructure?
Back in the 1990s, I had a professor and mentor — a bridge engineer — who realized that inspiration can come from unusual places. He looked at dental braces and realized that the same technology that was reshaping children’s teeth could help bridges resist earthquakes. That inspiration was the spark that led to bridges today constructed with shape memory alloys. This is the type of innovative thinking that we’ll need to truly solve our infrastructure issues.
As engineers, we are trained to build roads and bridges around 40-year plans. But with the incredible rate of technological advancement that’s changing where we live and how we travel, 40 years might as well be 200. We need to develop infrastructure that can evolve modes of transportation and people it serves. In the past, we could be confident new transportation infrastructure would remain useful for a generation or longer. If we continue to develop infrastructure based on today’s parameters, our roads and bridges may not be useful in five or 10 years. How do we think differently? A good start would be to ask how other industries handle this challenge.
Can we transform roads or transit infrastructure efficiency in the same way retail is making the U.S. Postal Service more efficient? Can our roads serve as something more than just a surface for tires to roll over? Are they being used as efficiently as possible? Can we adopt the economies of scale enjoyed by other industries? Why replace one bridge at a time when we could package them up and replace 20, or 200? If our cell phones can charge wirelessly, why not our vehicles? These questions may not have easy answers, but when we do find the answers, we will be well on our way to creating an adaptable, evolutionary infrastructure system.
Bridges, not barriers
If we address our infrastructure challenges conventionally, barriers posed by funding issues, talent shortages, and rapidly changing technology will be insurmountable. However, if we approach these issues in innovative ways, learning from the example of other industries, pursuing thoughtful funding schemes, and building partnerships that combine the best talents, we will not only fix transportation infrastructure, but create a gift for our children and a bridge to future generations.
Nathan Johnson, Ph.D., P.E., is vice president and Bridge Market Segment manager for Kleinfelder. Johnson has more than 15 years of engineering and management experience, specializing in leading multidiscipline teams to complete structure-centric transportation projects through planning, funding, permitting, design, and construction. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.