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Looking back at Infrastructure Week: We have our marching orders—educate and advocate

May 21, 2018

By Stuart Lerner

As practitioners, now is the time to focus on what role we can take in helping repair our infrastructure systems in the US

I'll admit it, as I look back on National Infrastructure Week 2018, I’m a bit worried that there is no clear path as to how we will bring the US Infrastructure into a “State of Good Repair.” As I approach my fourth decade of practicing in the Infrastructure business (starting just after the wheel was invented), I’d like to examine the state of the industry and how we can continue to play a role in pushing advancements forward.

I attended a brief InfraDay conference in New York City and learned that the state of America’s infrastructure has remained stagnant at a D+ rating since 1998, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card. Although the state of our infrastructure has become a topic working its way to the public forefront, it still has a long way to the go … and as they say, “show me the money.”

Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project (LSIORB) Downtown Crossing Design-Build

Among the numerous presentations at InfraDay, I was consistently reminded that as practitioners we have a responsibility to our clients, colleagues, and the public to lead in the industry’s best practices beyond our great designs. Whether it is how to best fund a project, deliver a project, or maintain the asset after the project has been constructed, we need to take the lead. Here’s some of my other takeaways from the session.

Whether it is establishing complete-street policies, smart-city policies, or just being creative in our project delivery, we must focus on how we can make our infrastructure networks better for the next generation.

US federal funding

The United States’ administration/legislature may end up deferring any significant infrastructure funding commitments until 2019. And, even when the federal investment is allocated, it is only currently anticipated to represent less than 15% of the proposed overall investment that the Federal government is trying to catalyze. The balance of the funding will need to come from local governments and the private sector. 

While the federal funding will be certainly welcome when it is approved, many believe it will trickle through one sector at a time (i.e., first airports, then transit, then roads, etc.) and it remains an unknown what will be the first group of projects to get the funding commitments. Nonetheless, many people remain bullish on the infrastructure industry investments while recognizing that it will require lots of energy by individuals and organizations to bring improvements to fruition, whether it is through project execution or as an industry advocate—or both.

An interesting note: according to Michael Likosky, Head of Infrastructure at 32 Advisors, only 15 states have reported major transportation issues, while 40 cite energy as their higher priority. Therefore, we need to be aware how this will impact the negotiation positions of all the players in Washington, D.C., when it comes to obtaining project funding.

Is the overall funding program currently put forth enough? No.

Our current infrastructure funding gap is estimated to be $20 trillion. If this is spread over 10 years ($20 trillion/10 years = $2 trillion per year), we could achieve a State of Good Repair with an investment of only an additional 1% of US gross domestic product on an annual basis (from its current 2.5% to 3.5%). Advancements in technology such as automated vehicles and more efficient project delivery will also help close the funding gap. However, it will require increased investments in funding and in our technical expertise to bring our infrastructure network to an efficient and safe condition. In general, we have a need and desire to have smarter cities and use smarter mobility, but the capacity to make this happen is currently hamstrung by our culture, our funding, and our skills.

Overtaxed transportation systems

Unemployment is down to the lowest rate since 2000. That is good news. But with more workers and their vehicles on the roads, we will see more wear and tear on an already overtaxed transportation network. Vehicle miles traveled last year was at an all-time high. More commuting means more congestion, and safety issues will become even more magnified. Instituting Complete Streets and smart mobility policies is more important now than ever before. We are big proponents of the benefits of complete streets/smart mobility and I hope to see all of us as advocates in the cities/towns in which we work and play implement strategies to make transportation corridors safer, efficient, and more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly.

One Vanderbilt, New York, New York. Developed and funded by SL green in conjunction with $220M worth of public realm improvements. Stantec is the AOR and EOR for all transit improvements.

Alternative project delivery is necessary

Although the attitude toward taxes varies greatly state by state, the public generally feels they are paying too much in taxes, and therefore finding funding streams to invest in needed infrastructure is problematic. However, there are other avenues to fund projects, like toll roads and taxes on the increased value of real estate in corridors that have better mobility (e.g., tax-increment financing).

The current economic climate provides a good opportunity for bringing these alternative project financing methods to reality as well as other alternative project delivery methods (APD) such as Design/Build and Public Private Partnerships (P3s). We anticipate the number of APD deals will increase going forward. However, the US needs to learn from our Canadian neighbors about how to be more efficient in bringing these projects to market. Currently in the US, it is estimated that it costs 5% of the total project costs to bring an APD project through the procurement phase as compared to just 2% in Canada. Increased efficiencies/standardization will need to be implemented by all parties—including public transportation agencies, private sector consortiums, and industry advocate groups such as the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC)—to help drive these costs down. Additionally, the current streamlining of the environmental and regulatory processes, like a more efficient National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, will also help, even though these processes don’t currently appear to be serving as a deterrent.

Ultimately, infrastructure professionals must spread the word and be leaders in educating and encouraging our clients, colleagues, and the public to think differently about infrastructure networks. It’s incumbent upon all of us to help increase awareness through social media, industry outreach events, or even at meals with friends and family, about best practices in instituting policies and projects. Whether it is establishing complete-street policies, smart-city policies, or just being creative in our project delivery, we must focus on how we can make our infrastructure networks better for the next generation.

  • 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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