The bridges may be crumbling, the roads full of holes and the dams about to burst, but until something raises the hackles of the public, getting anything done about them is going to be a challenge.
That was the feeling of many on a panel gathered Feb. 28 to talk about America’s aging public works at Rice’s Norman Hackerman Memorial Symposium: The Corroding of America’s Infrastructure. The daylong event was held in honor of Rice’s fourth president, a pioneering researcher in the field of corrosion inhibition (see related story on Hackerman).
Acknowledging that few pay attention to America’s aging structures until one of them fails — as happened last August when a bridge in Minneapolis tumbled into the Mississippi at rush hour, killing 13 — six high-powered panelists from industry, academia, public service and the media told an audience at Janice and Robert McNair Hall that awareness is key to fixing the problem.
”It’s not a sexy topic,” said Eric Berger, science writer for the Houston Chronicle. ”It doesn’t fit the broadcast news paradigm of ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ It’s not easy to get Congress to focus on infrastructure to the exclusion of Roger Clemens, just like it’s not easy to get the news media to focus on bridges that are still standing.”
But such real-time events as the Minnesota disaster provide an opportunity to bring the case to the public, he said. ”If there are seven bad bridges in your community, tell the public about it in the aftermath of a tragedy elsewhere. You’ll have their full attention.”
Citing a 2002 study that concluded failing infrastructure costs the American economy $276 billion a year, Tony Keane argued the case for investment, saying the environmental and economic impact alone of meeting the ”critical need to address the corrosion issue” is worth the effort.
That number ”represents roughly three percent of the gross domestic product,” said Keane, executive director of NACE International, a professional association for corrosion-control technology. ”Roughly one-third of that, with the right processes, procedures, material selection, design considerations, is recoverable. We could save that if we put certain things into play.”
Americans need to ante up to make that happen, said William Marcuson, director emeritus of the Geotechical Laboratory, Engineering Research and Development Center, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who also spoke about the deterioration of the nation’s dams during an earlier session of the symposium.
”I believe money that gets targeted for infrastructure needs to be spent on infrastructure,” said Marcuson, who recommended a gas-tax increase of 2 cents a month for 48 months — nearly $1 a gallon by the end of the term. “It wouldn’t stop my wife from driving one bit. It would give us a tremendous amount of money — and it would give most people 48 months to see whether they ought to buy a bicycle. A crumbling infrastructure cannot support a thriving economy,”
With Republican presidential candidate John McCain speaking at Rice’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy earlier in the day, some wondered why the corrosion of America’s infrastructure hasn’t been a topic for debate this election season. ”I understand that several societies of civil engineering tried to bring the issue of infrastructure as an issue at the debates,” said Rice engineering professor Pol Spanos. ”And I guess (the candidates’) writers told them either there was no mass interest from the public or it would be too risky to bring up.”
That hasn’t stopped the American Society of Civil Engineers, of which Marcuson is a former president, from pushing congressional buttons to get something done. Noting the society had given the nation’s public works a ”D” in 2005, Marcuson said the ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card, a detailed list of pending legislation to address the nation’s woes, is due to be updated next week. It can be viewed at www.asce.org/reportcard
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett had another view. ”There’s an old saying in politics that ‘freight don’t vote,”’ he said of trying to win support for projects that tend to stay under the radar until disaster strikes. ”When you talk about transportation and commuters, people get excited, but freight doesn’t quite get it done unless there’s tragedy.”
”The American public doesn’t want to live in fear,” said Keane. ”Therefore, they don’t want to understand risk. I think we’ve got an obligation to convey what that risk is.
”The reality is, nothing’s perfect.,” he said. “Things are going to break. If the public starts to be afraid to travel over any bridge, unless we have some way of communicating which bridges are good, then we’re going to see a tremendous shift in what’s going to happen in this country. That’s probably why the politicians don’t want to deal with this issue, because it comes from a fear point of view, not something that says, ‘Wow, this is great for the country.”’
With an estimated one-quarter of America’s 600,000 bridges said to be in need of repair or carrying too heavy a traffic load, the pressure was on Michael O’Toole, director of project development for the Texas Department of Transportation’s bridge division, to defend his department. He said 78 percent of the state’s 50,000 bridges are in ”good or better condition.”
”The hope is that by 2011, there will be no structurally deficient bridges, although with more added to the deficient list as they age, we’ll probably never get to zero.”
He said, however, ”There is no bridge in Texas I wouldn’t feel safe driving across, because I know the people who inspect those bridges and I know how detailed they get when they do it.”
O’Toole said each bridge is inspected ”at least” every two years. ”If it’s a fracture-critical bridge — that is, if one tension member fails — those inspections are done at arm’s length. Literally, from no more than three feet, inside and out and from every possible angle.”
Spanos gave slightly less credit for bridge safety to engineers — ”Engineers are not gods” — and slightly more to the fear of litigation. ”As an engineer, I’d like to say it’s amazing how much infrastructure improvement is due to lawyers and judges,” he said. ”You go to a bridge, or the owner of a major structure, and you ask them to do some risk analysis; they think you’re a crazy professor. The moment a lawyer knocks on the door, all of a sudden you have your risk calculations.”
Academic and professional conferences are all well and good, said Keane, but individuals need to take responsibility and spread the word about the sagging of America’s physique.
”We’re talking about it here,” said Keane, ”but are the right people really talking about it? Where are the CEOs, the CFOs of our private-sector companies? Where are the Senate and Congress on these issues? They’re the ones who can make a difference in this. They’re the ones allocating resources across the country. We need to make sure the discussion is taking place at that level, and we do our jobs in making them aware.”
The panel discussion addressing infrustructure problems was just one of many during the symposium. Hosted by Rice University and the Baker Institute, the Hackerman symposium gathered experts from government, academia, business and the news media to discuss the state of America’s physical infrastructure, including bridges, nuclear power plants and dams. The Baker Institute’s Science and Technology Policy Program helped plan the program.