From the Editor: Finally, No More ‘Kicking the Infrastructure Can’ to Future Generations
I was about halfway through reading the April 2022 issue of Informed Infrastructure when I realized that, besides the obvious choices of “the” and “and,” one of the most-used words was “infrastructure.” It’s even on the cover—twice. (This is not an official count. It’s just my reaction to the number of times writers are covering this topic.) The word often was followed by the words act or bill or law, and sometimes preceded by crumbling or poor or outdated.
In the Text
The first mention was a paragraph describing the “sorry shape” of our bridges, noting that 224,000 bridges need major repairs or replacement, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. That’s a huge number. More startling is that it represents about one out of three bridges. Think about that as you drive down the highway.
I mentioned this to the Civil Engineering Department Chair at Valparaiso University, where I work part-time, and said we should be teaching a class specifically about bridge design. His response was completely expected: “Would you be interested in teaching that class?”
In the magazine’s interview with president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Maria Lehman, she used a phrase that helps explain the condition of our infrastructure perfectly: “Our infrastructure is not in a midlife crisis, but in an old-age crisis.”
In one of the columns, there’s a discussion of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes large amounts of spending for our infrastructure. It includes money for the Department of Transportation (roads and bridges, passenger and freight rail, airports, EV charging), the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation (water infrastructure), Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others. And much of this spending is subject to the Buy America provisions.
Deserved Attention, Next Steps
Our infrastructure finally is getting the attention it desperately deserves. It’s time for our civil and environmental engineers to step up and repair, rehabilitate and replace all the various parts of our infrastructure that have served well beyond their design life. But this brings up the next-most-common subject in the April issue: How are we going to get this done?
When I talk to some of my colleagues who are still in the infrastructure design, consulting and construction business, the same concern comes up: they can’t find enough qualified people to do the work. COVID-19 slowed everything down for the entire industry, but as we return to a more-normal environment, the shortage of personnel becomes evident. This is across the board in all aspects of infrastructure work. Here are some short quotes from the April issue:
• “… firms identify a tight labor market and lack of qualified workers as a continued barrier to growth.”
• “Talent is scarce, and many companies vie for the same talent.”
• “Supply and labor shortages and increased costs are likely, resulting from existing conditions and an increase in demand for supplies and labor …”
One positive impact we can have on this new infrastructure opportunity is continued development of smarter, longer-lasting facilities. How can we adapt our current infrastructure to be more compatible with smart technologies? How do we revise our design standards to increase the life of our infrastructure? How do we incorporate sustainability to reduce the environmental impact of projects? Can we now fully embrace the use of robotics and remote worksite management?
The Time Is Now
I’ve always told anyone who would listen that I’m so grateful to have started my career in the beginning of the 1970s, when a handheld calculator was a new thing and drafting with parallel bars was the norm. To be able to have seen the changes in the work environment from filling out forms to be keypunched to be sent to the mainframe computer down the hall to having a two-screen workstation on my desk is an amazing thing. Can you imagine the innovations our industry is going to produce to meet these new challenges?
Our industry is being asked to solve the problem we’ve all been talking about for years. We’ve known that our infrastructure needed vast improvements. We’ve been telling legislators this for a long time, and they finally agreed. Congress soon will start allocating the funds, and now we have to produce. We’re no longer waiting for some unidentified funding for some unidentified period of time—it’s now. It’s for us, our children and grandchildren—not a “future” generation.