Prosperity Depends on Infrastructure

While policymakers and pundits focus on the financial meltdown, another crisis is brewing in the US: Our infrastructure system is silently deteriorating.

We have experienced over 500 bridge failures since 1989 according to one recent study. This in addition to the banner-headline-making events like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where levee failures destroyed swaths of New Orleans, the tragic I-35W bridge collapse of August 2007 and further levee breaks in the summer of 2008.

We must overhaul the broken systems that have led us to this point — and we don't have a moment to lose, says LePatner, co-author of Structural & Foundation Failures and author of Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America's Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry.

We all know the nation's vast infrastructure problems cannot be fixed overnight. However, by aggressively moving toward a solution now — rather than applying a series of ineffective ‘band-aids’ — we can begin to make real improvements that will benefit our country for generations to come.

Tackling our critical transportation and infrastructure problems will require a national commitment and a strategic plan that should include the following solutions:

Create a national clearinghouse and database, accessible to every state transportation agency and the general public. The database will identify all design and construction issues affecting the nation's infrastructure. There is a precedent in the Federal Aviation Administration. The aviation industry receives alerts that immediately advise all airlines of problems with an aircraft and require immediate attention before the aircraft can go back into service. A similar database should be created to require the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to alert all state transportation departments of any bridge failure in the nation and include methodologies for remedial design as well as alerts for maintenance problems for all of America's 600,000 bridges.

There is already evidence that making infrastructure problems public can lead to protective measures. In May 2008, nearly a year after the collapse of Minneapolis' I-35W bridge, Minnesota's Department of Transportation (MnDOT) closed the Winona Interstate bridge because inspectors had documented rusted and corroded gusset plates in 2006 and 2007. The bridge had not been closed until federal officials identified defective gusset plates as the potential cause of the I-35W disaster. Equally important, MnDOT officials had no prior knowledge that a failure of gusset plates similar to those they experienced on the I-35W bridge had occurred over the Grand River in Ohio in 1996. By June 2008, MnDOT announced that they would replace eleven major bridges in the state, some with the same concerns about deteriorated gusset plates that had gone undetected.

State governments must do everything in their power to ensure they have informed their citizens — either through hearings, press conferences, or news releases — about bridges that have received structurally deficient ratings.

In addition, they should be obligated to develop a game plan for correcting problems within six months of a bridge's designation as “structurally deficient.” One in four bridges in the US have been rated as either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.” The public should receive annual updates on the remediation progress.

We must also act to deal with the shortage of civil and structural engineers. The lack of these types of engineers on the staffs of state transportation departments prevents them from adequately performing the inspections critical to assessing the safety level of each state's bridges. State governments can and must recognize the ability to reduce long-term maintenance costs rests with these engineers' valued experience.

Invest in advanced technologies that provide more accurate inspections. By the time cracks are visible in a bridge's structure, the costs for remediation have skyrocketed. Many of today's inspection techniques fail to detect cracks until they are visible to the human eye. The FHWA has acknowledged visual inspections of bridges are highly subjective and not totally reliable in detecting cracks in critical structural elements before they become visible.

Technology exists to anticipate bridge remediation years before rust, corrosion, and cracks in the structure appear. We just need to fund states to purchase this equipment and train their inspectors to use it. Enabling bridge inspectors to ensure precision and objectivity in their evaluation process, allows us to catch problems earlier when they are easier to fix, and save millions of dollars.

We need reforms to help us avoid runaway costs. Boston's Big Dig is the most expensive highway project ever. Its original budget, set back in 1985, was just over $2 billion. In 2008, it was revealed the real cost of the project will reach $22 billion with a pay-off set for 2038. According to one report, the Big Dig has dealt a considerable financial blow to the state of Massachusetts, taking needed funds away from maintenance and repair for the state's deteriorating roads and bridges and forcing the state to float more highway bonds and to go even deeper into debt.

The construction industry is rife with cost overruns and missed schedules. The industry itself will have to be reformed before we can start making progress in repairing the nation's infrastructure. An essential part of that reform will come from better contracts that would 1) be based on 100% complete architectural and engineering drawings and specifications, 2) include a fixed price for everything designed and approved by the infrastructure owner, and 3) apportion all the risks that are expected during construction between the parties.

The construction industry is the most inefficient industry in our nation, where the average project wastes as much as 50% of the total labor cost. Establishing fixed-priced contracts on large infrastructure remediation projects will lead to savings of billions of public dollars. When you consider the huge numbers of projects that must be completed in order to restore America's infrastructure, it is clear that American taxpayers can't afford a ‘business as usual’ mindset anymore.

The current financial crisis has focused attention on what the nation's priorities should be. Repairing the nation's infrastructure should be one of those top priorities. After all, we cannot have a prosperous nation without providing a safe infrastructure system for our citizens and businesses.

An added bonus is that every $1 billion in infrastructure spending is estimated to create 47,000 new jobs. By taking the steps necessary to tackle our infrastructure problem now, we have an opportunity to improve our economy with the great ROI of a better, safer infrastructure system that will lead to a stronger nation.

Barry B. LePatner is the founder of the New York City-based law firm LePatner & Associates LLP. For three decades, he has been prominent as an advisor on business and legal issues affecting the real estate, design, and construction industries. He is author of Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America's Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry.

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