October 30, 2008
As you read this, the election is a memory, and the president elect is known. I hope that the current financial mess is also just a memory. As I write, however, neither is the case.
Regardless of who was elected, our next president and other elected officials have a big job ahead of them. Many things need to be done, but one that is not receiving much attention is actually a ticking time bomb. Our infrastructure is quickly decaying, which will inevitably have catastrophic results if not soon addressed.
What is our infrastructure? Probably other things could be added to the list, but we can think of highways/bridges, the power grid, drinking water and sewer systems, levees and dams, and ports and locks. While I’m not a fan of government programs better suited for the private sector, our government – local, state and federal – is charged with maintaining and upgrading our infrastructure. According to an estimate by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), $1.6 trillion is needed over the next five years to get this job done. Our tax dollars should be at work in all of these infrastructure systems.
Starting with bridges, let’s get some perspective on the scope of the project ahead. Roughly, one in four bridges in the U.S. are outdated or structurally unsound. There are 599,893 bridges in total and 153,521 that are documented to be in need of attention. It’s not necessary to increase government bureaucracy to get this done. Virginia’s Department of Transportation has turned to privatization to improve their highway maintenance.
The collapsed I35 Bridge in Minnesota is an example of what can happen if bridges are not given the proper attention. The replacement St. Anthony Falls Bridge is an example of an infrastructure project done well. Promised complete by Christmas Eve of this year, traffic began using the replaced bridge on Sept. 18, just 13 months after the fatal collapse. This bridge includes high-performance concrete, a structural monitoring system and a life span of 100 years.
Super steel will play a role in the next generation of bridges. In use for the last decade, steel with twice the strength of conventional steels is being used by Lehigh researchers to re-engineer “I” beams with corrugated webs – thinner but stronger. Higher strength and corrosion-resistant materials make 150-year bridges a reality.
Similar to bridges, locks keep our nation’s waterway transportation moving. There are more than 12,000 miles of inland waterways transporting 625 million tons of freight each year. About one half of all U.S. lock and dam systems need to be replaced or modernized. In one Ohio River location alone, 12 million tons of coal is moved through locks each year. If this amount had to be transported by truck, it would take 460,000 semis to do it.
The nation’s power grid is another significant area of need. Particularly as new sources of generation – wind and solar – are integrated in, network upgrades will be needed. Cogeneration is one way to take advantage of the 60% energy loss to heat in the power-generation process. As more cogeneration is undertaken, the grid will be challenged in new ways. In order to reduce losses and smooth the flow, large storage batteries will be needed like the 40-megawatt NiCd system in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The ASCE estimates that maintaining our country’s clean-water system alone will cost $446 billion from 2000-2019. With all of the work to be done in a variety of infrastructure systems, experts are concerned that the engineering brain drain will negatively affect our ability to accomplish the necessary upgrades.
No matter who is currently sitting as our president elect, there’s a big job to be done. Our industry will benefit as infrastructure projects are undertaken across the U.S. Let’s take a pass on the pork, but pass the projects that will benefit the most people and may save lives in the process. IH