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Engineering The Future: The Future Starts Now

Maria Lehman on March 29, 2024 - in Articles, Column

Maria Lehman will be writing a regular column for Informed Infrastructure, starting with this April 2024 issue. Shortly after becoming ASCE president, she was interviewed for an April 2022 cover feature: bit.ly/3IkrT1a.

“Engineering” and “passion” are two words rarely seen together, so when they are used collectively, you can’t help but pay attention. I have an incredible passion for engineering and how it creates the foundation for a healthy, prosperous and resilient future. I’m very thankful to Informed Infrastructure for the opportunity to talk about how we, as engineers, are developing plans to create a sustainable and secure future for all. In this column, I plan to look at what’s going on today in the engineering field and how we all can play an active role in forming that new future.

What to Expect

Throughout the year, my column will review funding and finance, innovative materials and delivery, better and more-comprehensive use of standards, changing the paradigm from first-instance (or CAPEX) costs to lifecycle (or TOTEX) costs, and building resilient infrastructure. However, to do this, we need the people. We need to expand pre-college and community outreach not only to help the public understand our industry and advocate with us, but to increase the pipeline for all workers in the space—from laborers to engineers—and ensure the workforce has equal opportunities for all. We need a robust and trained workforce, including women and minorities, that sees infrastructure as high tech—not just hard hats and dirty boots. After all, the cab of a backhoe today looks more like an airplane cockpit than anything else.

I recently served as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which has been producing a “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” since 1998; it has been a game-changer in the advocacy space, bringing complex and often out-of-sight, out-of-mind issues into the forefront of public discourse. The Report Card is developed every four years and accompanied by an economic study that quantifies the macroeconomic impact of inaction when we don’t invest in our built environment, while also exploring the benefits of taking the steps necessary to properly invest in these systems through the course of ensuing decades.

The studies were previously called “Failure to Act” because the federal government had accumulated decades of underinvestment in American Infrastructure. Thankfully, Congress and the Biden Administration made major investments through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. The study that will be released in April 2024 will be renamed “Bridging the Gap,” referring to the steps necessary to close our existing infrastructure investment gap.

Because of the BIL’s plus-up investment of $550 million and the uncertainty of whether the next reauthorizations will include similar plus-up funding, the reports will model the economic impacts both with a continuation of current funding levels as well as if we go back to pre-BIL levels. Even with inflation, we expect the reports to indicate we’re making progress on the backlog when the numbers are final, thanks to a combination of increased funding, using innovation and streamlining processes. It’s crucial we continue on this path, and we need everyone to make this a priority to ensure a well-built, sustainable future.

Let’s Tell Our Stories

I see examples of game-changing projects every day in my role as GHD’s U.S. Infrastructure Lead. Focusing on capacity building for clients and communities when delivering projects, we look toward better reuse and recycling of raw and finished products from water to concrete and steel, renewed use of natural gas from organic waste, conversion to an electric and hydrogen economy, and many other examples. But what good are they if the public doesn’t know about them? These stories need to be told from all corners of the industry. Join me in telling the stories to everyone who will listen.

Case in point, the ASCE will premiere its new IMAX movie, “Cities of the Future,” in Los Angeles on April 3, 2024. The film follows five diverse young engineers who already are building the smart, sustainable cities of the future. The film offers an inspiring vision of our urban environment 50 years in the future, and I urge you to watch the movie at a theater near you or apply for a grant to bring the film to your community of engineers (www.futureworldvision.org/cities-future-grants). GHD also will be addressing this with our upcoming “Future Communities” campaign. More details on that in the months ahead.

In my almost 43 years in the business, I have never experienced such an opportunity as what we have before us: what we do in the next few years will set the glide path for the next several decades. Our industry is responsible for infrastructure. It’s up to us to build the foundation for an exciting, sustainable, resilient and thriving future.

If we don’t do it, who will?


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About Maria Lehman

Maria Lehman, P.E., F.ASCE, ENV SP, is U.S. Infrastructure Lead for GHD. She is the past president of the ASCE and currently serves as vice chair of President Biden’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council; email: [email protected].

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