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Infrastructure: The most important conversation you’re not having

November 06, 2018

By Stuart Lerner

The critical work of upgrading our decaying infrastructure has been put on the back burner—that must change

One of our biggest challenges as a country is our aging infrastructure. In my last post, I shared some of the big ideas from Infrastructure Week 2018 and made the case that as professionals in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry, we need to advocate for investing in our country’s infrastructure, which needs major repair. 

Many of us are familiar with the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) infrastructure report card, in which they gave the United States a D+. In its report, the ASCE outlines that the cost of ignoring infrastructure investment could be $3.9 trillion by 2025, including a loss of 2.5 million jobs. They aptly point out that this is equivalent to the economy of Germany, one of the world’s economic powerhouses.

The 17th Street Pump Station, designed by Stantec, is part of the Permanent Canal Closures and Pumps project in New Orleans. The city depends on three outflow canals to move stormwater out of the city.

This is a far cry from America’s heyday as the world’s most industrious nation, when we connected our communities by building roads, bridges, and modern cities. The benefits we saw from that investment are well understood, and they can be just as powerful today. Dollars spent on infrastructure provide an immediate multiplier on the investment, resulting in economic demand across the board—from subcontracting to real estate to retail. This also has a positive effect on long-term growth, enabling us to get our products to market, increase exports, and fuel entrepreneurship and innovation.

But there is more at stake than the economic upside to investment versus the economic downside of neglect. This is a public safety issue.

The tragic bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy, in August reminded us what can happen when we neglect infrastructure. The same goes for the Florida International University pedway. The Greenfield Bridge in Pittsburgh became a symbol of band-aid solutions when comedian John Oliver made it into a joke—but this is no laughing matter.

A second bridge underneath the Greenfield Bridge in Pittsburgh was built to catch falling debris, until replacement work began in 2015. (Photo: Doug Kerr from Albany, NY [Interstate 376 - Pennsylvania])

Making this issue even more urgent is the fact that hundred-year storms are now happening a lot more frequently than every 100 years. We need to protect our cities and our citizens. There is too much at stake to stand back and hope our 1950s and 1960s era infrastructure is up to snuff. Our coastal cities and our waterfront property are some of our most valuable—and most vulnerable—assets.

Flood protection work in New Orleans to make the city more resilient after Hurricane Katrina is just one of many projects needed to deal with the reality we now face. We need our cities to be resilient, not just in a state of good repair. We have the technology and the knowledge to make that happen. But we need the funding.

While infrastructure funding is being debated, alternative project delivery is providing us with new avenues for completing projects. The fact is we’re getting very good at public-private partnerships, as evidenced by the massive SH288 toll road project in Houston, which was just named one of the Top 10 Road projects in the United States by Roads & Bridges magazine. The wider array of funding options for these projects is helping, but we still have work to do to be where we need to be.

SH288 is an $850 million P3 in Houston that will improve accessibility and the health of the area’s transportation network. (Photo: Almeda-Genoa Constructors and AeroPhoto)

There is no doubt we are at a crossroads. The smart cities being imagined by Alphabet and Sidewalk Labs are in sharp contrast to the state of repair in many of our cities. We cannot and should not ignore this pressing issue any longer. While infrastructure jumps to the top of the news cycle every time we experience a tragedy, it disappears just as quickly when the next news item comes along.

As professionals working toward the improvement of our foundational infrastructure, we need to be thinking about how we will get to more than just a state of good repair but a state of resiliency.

  • Stuart Lerner

    Stuart has more than 30 years of experience in transportation infrastructure engineering, and is an acknowledged leader not only within Stantec, but throughout the industry.

    Contact Stuart
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