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White Paper #4
… But First, a Plan.
A White Paper by LifeSpan Technologies
If you are as confounded as we are about whether the United States can afford to repair its failing infrastructure, welcome to our world. The articles, interviews, reports, and papers we read all point toward the immediate need for TRILLIONS of dollars just to put our crumbling infrastructure back together again, much less add new capacity.
Despite the doom and gloom suggested by many authors and pundits, we believe that a solution to this problem is tailor-made for engineers, who are trained to think logically and execute big projects. Where else have we turned over the past century when we needed solutions to enormous technical problems that have been nearly impossible to understand, much less solve? Engineers. So, rather than continue to fulminate over the infrastructure funding number de jour, why not turn this problem over, on a state-by-state basis, to engineers who can develop and implement a long-range plan supported by facts and figures, not emotion?
The objective of this paper is to review and summarize the problem, and then offer a proposed solution that the U.S. taxpayer can both support and afford. After all, don’t the U.S. taxpayers deserve the most effective solution? We contend no amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth will overcome the challenge we face – to determine the actual condition of our infrastructure assets and plan how we can remedy the problem over a ten year time frame at a manageable cost.
We commend the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) for bringing this issue to national attention with its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. However, ASCE’s infrastructure renewal approach assumes that visual inspection condition assessments are accurate, leading to a stated need for $2.2 TRILLION dollars of investment for replacement or repair. While this large number includes a wide range of infrastructure assets, bridges alone are presumed to require an additional $500 BILLION dollars over a five year period.
For too long in this country, we have relied solely on visual inspection protocols to determine the condition of our infrastructure assets, especially transportation assets such as bridges. We have learned over the past decade that the visual inspection process is riddled with subjectivity, substantial variability, and cannot be confidently used to assess risk or objectively allocate limited funds. However, many transportation asset owners continue relying on this process as if it were the only choice. Fortunately, it isn’t.
Last year, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee proposed, debated and finally persuaded Congress and the administration to support and sign a transportation bill, titled MAP-21. While most transportation asset owners have decried its minimal time frame – only two years – they are also taken aback by the wholesale changes in how the owners are expected to manage their infrastructure. The funding processes have shifted from the federal government providing funds to state DOTs for bridge repair and replacement based on a calculated sufficiency rating (using visual inspection data) to one based on performance metrics in an asset management paradigm. It’s about time.
This change should lead state DOTs, transportation boards, and governors to ask the following questions:
- Using a subjective, highly variable visual inspection process, how can we be certain which bridges need repair or replacement?
- Are there alternative methods of assessing condition that are cost effective, objective and more precise; supporting enhanced asset management?
- Can objective condition assessments lead to improved risk management?
- Can objective condition assessments lead to a safe extension of bridge life span?
- Can objective condition assessments lead to less overall funding demand?
Over the past decade, the advanced condition assessment industry has learned that many bridges are unnecessarily load restricted and many bridges deemed deficient do not require immediate repair or replacement. Simply put, this industry does not believe there are 65,000+ structurally deficient bridges in the U.S. The number is too high and is not supportable when using precise, objective, advanced condition assessment technologies as part of an asset management program.
The key to solving this problem is to determine which bridges represent the highest risk. Fix those first. Then implement a long-range plan that can be funded by the taxpayers. While we agree that U.S. transportation infrastructure, on the whole, is in poor condition; we also recognize that expecting the U.S. taxpayers to foot a $500 BILLION dollar bill over five years is financially irresponsible. Taxpayers deserve better options.
Infrastructure Renewal Options
The first option is to continue the current management paradigm and expect the federal government to allocate the funding suggested by ASCE. Owners will continue to rely on a condition assessment process that even the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) found lacking over ten years ago. This option will require minimal changes in how state DOTs conduct their work – business as usual. Consequently, owners will repair or replace many bridges that have sufficient life remaining simply because they don’t have precise, reliable and objective data to separate structures into more manageable categories.
A second option is to wholeheartedly embrace the asset management principles that MAP-21 advocates. This will require a more effective condition assessment approach, because if you can’t pinpoint the actual condition of a structure, you simply cannot assess and manage system risk while optimizing future spending (see LifeSpan’s White Paper #3). This option will require state DOTs to implement robust asset management programs that cut across all transportation assets, including roadways, bridges, and related structures. Not an easy task, but embraced by MAP-21 legislation.
A third option using MAP-21 principles and the one we prefer is for a state DOT, or even the state itself across a wider range of infrastructure assets (transportation, water supply, water treatment) to contract with a major engineering firm who can (1) develop a long-range plan to maximize the service life of existing assets, (2) properly manage known risks, while (3) minimizing the funding impact for state and national taxpayers. Such a plan will require a team of knowledgeable, experienced engineers to define the problem, develop and evaluate options; then recommend a long-term program that can be supported by reasonable amounts of taxpayer funding.
Our Dream Scenario
When we dream that a state governor meets with his/her DOT Commissioner to talk about the number of structurally deficient bridges in their state, the discussion goes something like this:
Governor: “I recently had a conversation with our state economic development team and they tell me several companies that are considering expansion in or relocation to our state are concerned about the condition and future cost to repair our transportation infrastructure.”
DOT Commissioner: I agree that infrastructure condition can affect economic decision making. Do you have something specific in mind?
Governor: “I want this problem to go away. Figure out what it will take to resolve this issue over the next ten years. Even if you have to hire third party engineers to develop a long-range plan, do it. Use better condition assessment technology, safely defer whatever projects you can, and limit spending to only the most critical assets. And get it done without increasing risk for the transportation users.”
Why the Bold Oklahoma Plan Won’t Optimize Spending
Whether or not our dream scenario ever takes flight, we can’t say. However, a variation of this scenario is already being implemented by Oklahoma DOT. The state has raised a substantial amount of bond money to resolve their structurally deficient bridge problem over the next decade.
Unfortunately, without the judicious application of advanced condition assessment technologies, Oklahoma DOT will probably spend too much of their bond money replacing or repairing bridges that have remaining service life, simply because they do not routinely utilize an objective, accurate and reliable method to determine actual bridge condition. This is the real cost of continued sole reliance on subjective visual condition assessment protocols. And it happens every day across the United States.
A National, Incentive-Based Transportation Funding Plan
For those who have read our previous White Papers, you know we are not fans of top down decrees from the federal government. While MAP-21 starts the process, we still prefer the federal government provide financial incentives to shape behavior and minimize taxpayer funding. We see the overall national debt as the single greatest threat to our national well being, but we do agree with many of our colleagues that the condition of our infrastructure represents a substantial threat to our economic well being and influences the ability to pay off our enormous national debt.
Four years ago, in our White Paper #2, A Better Way to Fix Our National Bridge Problem, we argued for an incentive based solution that Congress can readily implement for bridge repair and replacement. We suggest the readers of this paper review White Paper #2 again (available on www.lifespantechnologies.com) as Congress, particularly the House T&I Committee, seeks input for the next transportation bill. Send letters to your congressional representative and especially those from your state who serve on the House T&I Committee. Hearings on this issue will be scheduled in 2013 and your voice matters.
Finally, if Congress enacts an incentivized funding program, it will make even more sense for governors and DOT boards to enlist the development of a long range infrastructure renewal plan to resolve this problem. And the ultimate resolution of this problem does not have to bankrupt the taxpayers or the nation. The application of objective and rational problem-solving principles by engineering firms, leading to cost-effective, long-range infrastructure renewal plans, is the answer for which we’ve all been waiting.
Let’s get started.
For more information, contact LifeSpan Technologies on the Web at www.lifespantechnologies.com,
or by calling 770-234-9494.