Change Leader Full Interview: Smart Engineering and Infrastructure Funding Desperately Needed
Barry B. LePatner is the author of Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward. He is founder of the New York City-based law firm LePatner & Associates LLP; and for three decades has been prominent as an advisor on business and legal issues affecting the real estate, design and construction industries.
V1 Media: Please briefly summarize your industry education and professional background.
LePatner: By education, I am a lawyer licensed in the state of New York and have been practicing construction law, along with associated real estate issues for over 40 years. During that time, I’ve headed my own law firm, LePatner & Associates LLP. Along the way, I have had, for 25 years, a project-management company where we manage for our corporate, commercial and developer clients projects through completion. So I’ve had the wonderful benefit of being involved in every facet of the design, construction and real estate world.
V1 Media: Can you briefly summarize your book, <I>Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward
LePatner: I wrote Too Big to Fall because there had not been a definitive book that outlined, in an understandable way, how perilous our nation’s infrastructure had become as a result of 40 or more years of our federal and state governments putting less of a priority on our nation’s need to maintain and upgrade our bridges, roads, dams, ports and national grid of electricity. And the construct behind Too Big to Fall was really highlighted from the first chapter, where I tell a “tale of two cities” simultaneously–one being the city of New York, which encountered a failing, about-to-collapse Williamsburg Bridge that an intrepid deputy commissioner, Sam Schwartz, identified as a problem and fought against all the administrative obstacles in his way to explain and insist that the bridge be entirely rehabilitated and saved, and not just demolished for a costly new structure as some wanted.
I compare that with the inactions of the State of Minnesota, which back in the early 2000s was confronted with engineering reports over a decade that showed the I-35W bridge as a structurally deficient and fracture-critical bridge in jeopardy of collapse yet chose not to spend $17 million to fix the needed repairs on that bridge to give it redundancy to prevent a collapse. They said that kind of money was a “budget buster”, and then proceeded to allocate $3 million for a patching of potholes that overloaded the bridge against all the engineer recommendations, whereupon on Aug. 7, 2007, it collapsed, killing 13, injuring another 165 people leaving the Federal government with a $250 million cost of eplacement that never should have cost the public those lives or that kind of money.
So that was the predicate for writing about our failing infrastructure and highlighting the fact that in our nation, we had nearly 8,000 bridges that were being ignored by the Federal Highway Administration, because they were lumped in as structurally deficient but “safe” when in fact they were fracture-critical, meaning they lacked redundancy and could collapse if only one element of the bridge failed. It was bridges like the I-35W in Minnesota, the I-5 in the state of Washington over the Skagit River Bridge, the Silver Bridge between Kentucky and Ohio, all of these were fracture-critical bridges that collapse if one part–one element–of the bridge failed. There was no redundancy to save it, the bridge went straight down, and yet our federal government was ignoring the critical nature of that. So those were the things I brought to the attention of the American public and our national and state legislators around the country.
V1 Media: Is there something in the book that might be especially relevant to bridge engineers?
LePatner: I think the engineering world is comprised of many smart engineers who understand the basics of bridge design. When I travel around the country and speak to engineering groups, they all understand what I’m saying in terms of the critical nature of fracture-critical design, which means they lack redundancy, but they’re constrained because many of them work for state or federal contracting companies, and they can’t stand out and “rock the boat,” as they tell me, because losing those contracts will jeopardize their business.
They all say it’s so important that this message reach the public and our political leadership. Now, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Federal Highway Administration talk only about structurally deficient bridges. And they say they’re safe because we limit the amount of traffic from the original design–we limit three out of four lanes, three out of five lanes–and therefore the bridges are deemed to be “safe”.
What every engineer will understand is that when a bridge is structurally deficient, it has already failed from an engineering standpoint. And this is not Barry LePatner talking about it; this is about all the structural engineers who I’ve interviewed over the years and worked with who understand that when a bridge fails it means it can no longer handle the intended load. And the reason that is the case is for lack of maintenance, that the state governments have not had the money for this because the federal government has failed to commit the needed funding to maintain our bridges and roads.
Well, that doesn’t mean the states and the federal government should not identify these bridges as unsafe. They choose not to, for many reasons, most of which are political. And over the last 40 years, we have seen the highway gas tax, which supports the trust fund monies that fix our roads and bridges diminish. Why? Because we have not raised the tax since 1993, when Bill Clinton was in office, and it still is at 18.40 cents a gallon. On top of that, since the 1990s, fuel efficiency has gone up 10 miles a gallon, which means we collect even less of that tax. So as that tax has not been replenished or increased, as state and federal governments have not collected enough revenues, the highway trust fund has been exhausted and unable to fund needed repairs. And the numbers now for our National Bridge Inventory are more than $4 trillion to bring the standard of our bridges up to acceptable regulations and requirements.
V1 Media: Can we now talk about the most important elements and takeaways of the report you worked on with the Third Way in 2019 called “Fix the Damn Bridges”? And please provide a brief description of the Third Way.
LePatner: The Third Way is a think tank in Washington, D.C. It is a centrist organization, neither right wing, nor left wing; all they want is good governance. So when they were preparing a report in 2019, it was just after there was a failed infrastructure program from the Trump administration that never got off the ground. And as I said, in interviews around the country, it was “Dead on Arrival” because the Congress had just committed an almost $2 trillion tax cut for corporations and the 1%, leaving no extra money, in their minds, to fix our infrastructure. Well, the construct of the Third Way report focused on the need to address our failing bridges and roads. So they were picking up on the themes I had written about in “Too Big to Fall”. And what I did was to dialog with their leadership about how important it was to address the 8,000 bridges in our nation that are fracture-critical and structurally deficient -and there’s at least one and many, many more in every one of the 50 states–that are extensively used by the public. And when we put the money to them, finally, we will be eliminating the perils of the I-35 Bridge that collapsed in Minnesota, the Skagit River Bridge in Washington, and numbers of others that continue to face those perils in recent years.
V1 Media: Can you provide our readers some advice on what they need to be thinking about when they’re creating future bridge designs?
LePatner: This is an important subject you’re touching upon. In recent years, technology has made great strides to do two things: One, improve the structural design to build stronger bridges that meet structural requirements to support loads, but at the same time can be more efficient and lighter, and build in ways to maintain the bridges over a lifespan that will be less costly. For instance, we have the ability now to put nanobots–small chips—immediately below the surface of the roadbeds on bridges and roads that can report back to a central station when unusual wear and tear is happening in that section of the roadbed.
That means you can do limited repairs in that area rather than wait for the entire roadbed to face substantial wear and tear, costing tens and hundreds of times more than addressing these problems when they first appear. We also have a technology to monitor the structural support systems of existing bridges. And through these technologies, we can learn how to address problems before they become structurally deficient bridges, and attenuate those problems and remediate them earlier, which means cheaper. These are the kinds of things that state transportation agencies have been slow to adopt because of budget problems. And the advocates of technology have been storming the gates, saying we can’t afford to put this off, but the state transportation agencies repeatedly tell the specialized technology experts, “we just don’t have the money in our budget.” That’s got to change so we can bring our roads and bridges into acceptable standards for the 21st century.
V1 Media: What should engineers be advocating for within their companies and organizations?
LePatner: We’re now seeing a new breed of engineer coming to the professions. These are younger people, who are 40 and younger, who have grown up with computers, programming, understanding how to use advanced technology. They understand how to integrate the latest design technology into how they look at bridges, how they model them, how they study them for future remediation and the like. As this younger generation comes into the fore, they’re going to see that their forebears were constrained by mostly political and funding reasons, and no longer go along with those constraints. And I’m hoping this younger generation is going to speak out as a whole and respond better than this older generation of engineers has been to highlight the importance of attending to the perilous infrastructure that we must address now.
We must address the 15,000 dams in danger of collapse, according to reports by our federal and state authorities that affect downstream communities. We have to address our national electrical grid, which is in perilous shape because it’s tied into old, outdated technology sources that have been recently hacked and leave us vulnerable. We have to address ports that are poorly designed and no longer deep enough to manage 21st century traffic that’s global in nature. And I’m hoping that this younger generation isn’t bound by those constraints of silence, which has been fostered by the American Society of Civil Engineers and a lot of state engineering departments and associations who have remained silent on the importance of fracture-critical bridges.
V1 Media: How do you see infrastructure changing, from technology, investment and political changes, both in the next year and then the next five?
LePatner: The single most important event to change things around is the Biden Administration proposal to invest $2.2 trillion for remediation of our roads and bridges, our electric grid, removing the scourge of lead pipes that have poisoned poor communities and to provide internet service to all underserved communities around the nation. This program will address each infrastructure project by heeding the environmental effects of global warming and provide millions of high paying jobs that will train many unemployed for a new generation of skills. The technology that’s coming along today will improve the quality of our lives, rid us of reliance on fossil fuels, and begin paying attention to carbon footprints. You can’t build ports without building attendant roads that are part of the urban fabric of that or suburban fabric of that particular location and region. And what we are hoping to see, those of us who have talked about this around the nation, is that a new generation is going to tie all these subjects together and not do business in the old way, which hasn’t really worked out for our growing nation.
By the time we get to 2050, we are going to add 70 million new people to our population. We’ll be 400 million Americans, and we’re going to be expanding into the South and Southwest in cities that don’t even exist right now, but will begin to rise over those next 30 years or so. All of these areas around our country, with this new growth, are going to need new infrastructure to replace existing infrastructure, to build new airports, new roads, schools and hospitals; and all of that has to be tied together with smart engineering.
I’m confident that this next generation of engineers will see the exciting prospects raised by these new possibilities that and really apply their knowledge and focus their attention on designing smarter, more-ecologically sensitive ways, that will make our nation better and bring a better quality of life for everyone.