America’s Infrastructure: Do you really know what’s going on?

If any of us have been keeping up with the media, we believe to be experts on all the natural and infrastructure disasters that have happened and continue to occur. What we remain clueless to is the sensationalism and finger pointing game that the newscasts and newspaper articles involved. To name just a few examples, the recent harsh winters and the multiple issues with potholes and water main breaks, the New York gas line failures that resulted in various deaths and injuries, and Oso, Washington mudslides, which according to news media, should have been prevented by the government. The reality is that our nation has adopted the bad habit of acting after it is too late. Most of us have first hand experiences with this custom through natural disasters like the recent California earthquakes, yearly fires, and mudslides. Similarly, the Washington landslides have now brought attention to the lack of a national landslide warning program. Each year after these events occur, the need for preventive services and disaster coordination arises. Then, almost like clockwork, for a couple of weeks we all see the ads, commercials, and hear the radio announcements that aim to raise awareness about the dangers of these disasters. We also see all of the social media and public services scramble to provide us with emergency plans and contacts that can be of help to the people affected and to be noted for future references. It is clear to me that a public information campaign is the answer to our lack of knowledge, because these use mass media to shape public attitudes, values, and behaviors toward a chosen outcome. Our chosen outcome should be to come together and acknowledge our shared responsibility in improving our infrastructure and thus our way of life. Organizations, like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), have already implemented measures to raise awareness on our crumbling infrastructure and it is time for our public servants to take these to the next level.

The disasters caused by our infrastructure are numerous and constantly recurring due to the old age of our facilities. Unfortunately, even though they are increasingly comparable to natural disasters there is little urgency to mobilize society and legislators and promote societal involvement in fixing these problems. Thankfully, the ASCE noticed, and has been producing report cards for America’s infrastructure every four years since 1998. Andrew W. Herrmann, former ASCE president explained these analyses are done because of the ASCE “obligation to make a report on the state of infrastructure in the U.S. to show that we are not making the necessary investments to improve it and not even making some of the investments that we need to maintain what we have.” However, these report cards have not received the attention required to make impactful changes until the release of the most recent 2013 ASCE Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. I believe this was largely in part due to a discovery Herrmann had during his ASCE presidency in 2011 which allowed the ASCE to change their strategy. In his President’s Perspective post titled Are We Really the Rodney ‘No Respect’ Dangerfield of Professions? He explains that “Engineers, though labeled trustworthy by the public, get virtually no respect or recognition for what we do [… and] this may be why infrastructure is taken for granted. We don’t publicize it.”  Although the current rating has already generated over 16,000 media responses only a year after its release, these responses have focused on everything but how to continue improving the status of our infrastructure. Comedy Central took the opportunity to emphasize our minimal improvement from the 2009 report as a “tiny triumph,” and MSNBC, chose to report on the low grades, politicians’ broken promises, and hopeless amount of repairs and investment necessary to bring the infrastructure back to an acceptable standard.

With social media progressively at the forefront of sharing and digesting information, we see people, who have formulated erroneous beliefs about the condition of infrastructure, produce accounts stating that the crisis of America’s infrastructure is exaggerated, that roads are still pretty good, and it is really “not as bad as it sounds.” To challenge these erroneous beliefs ASCE has begun a group known as Save America’s Infrastructure, but I have realized that it is necessary to further the discussion from the engineering community to the general public if we hope to change any attitudes. The media, with proper direction, can be a tool to inform and empower and California has proven this time and time again through multiple campaigns aimed to educate the public. One of the best examples is the Flex Your Power campaign implemented for the 2001 energy crisis. It was a coordinated effort from the California State and Consumer Services Agency that urged “everyone from CEO’s to schoolchildren to conserve.” A case study of this campaign reveals that it was so well executed due to all of the support, which allowed “thousands of consumers [to receive] energy information on bags from grocery and convenience stores [and] teachers in grades 4-6 [to receive] energy conservation lesson materials.” Max Rodriguez, a supervising engineer with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, Flood Maintenance Division, expressed his support for these campaigns during our interview stating, “I have had the opportunity to work with various campaigns, and they really do make a difference. People don’t realize how much power they have.” Public information campaigns continue to be used widely across the different levels of government to promote awareness and increase results. After the success with Flex Your Power California has initiated Save Our Water, which calls Californian’s attention to conservation in our times of drought. Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, also uses a campaign (Lets Move!) in her fight against childhood obesity. With so many other important issues already implementing public information campaigns, the need for one regarding infrastructure is apparent and urgent.

It is a well known fact that large and powerful campaigns take large amounts of money and time to initiate and may have delayed gratification, but it should be obvious to all of us that for our infrastructure that the positives outweigh the negatives. We have had the opportunity to see their effectiveness, so many will wonder what would a campaign for our infrastructure look like. First we must set our audience, which includes raising the awareness of every American citizen, because we are the ones directly affected by the condition of our infrastructure. Having this audience can be difficult due to the regional differences in culture and needs, for example, while ports may be one of the major factors for coastal states, other states do not even have access to the ocean and would benefit more from rain and transit investments. Therefore it is important to have regionalized information about what would benefit the state population the most. Now, I am sure many will think, these all sound very similar to the report card that ASCE has been releasing and it is an approach that has not been working. However, before we completely dismiss the idea allow me to point out the difference that we will not be focusing on how much of our infrastructure is deficient, but on how to empower the public to request and vote for feasible plans to mend it. California has already set in motion plans to continue updating transportation through 2019, and if the rest of the states followed suit half of the work in implementing the infrastructure campaign would be accomplished. The state of our infrastructure is not something that can be fixed overnight, and it is not something the government can fix on their own. Nevertheless, until they begin taking action to educate the people so that we may all work together, we will not move forward.

The reality lies in the fact that our nation’s infrastructure is indeed crumbling and we as a society have not done enough to redeem it. However as long as the general public remains uninformed, we will lack the support of the public causing the laws and regulations that need to be changed to promote investment. This means that rehabilitation of our current infrastructure will continue to be postponed. We all know that media has great potential when it is used correctly to promote ideas that are for the greater benefit. We see it every day with the reminders to Flex Our Power, to open our minds to new forms of alternative energy, and to support the preservation of our environment. Very successful campaigns to increase recycling and reduce waste, more actively prepare for natural disasters, and continue to invest to contribute to economic growth have been catalyzed by media. Therefore it is now the time to take the sensational disasters and the many exposes on how they could have been prevented, and take it one step further to allow people to find out about current policies. We need people to understand exactly how their decisions affect each and every one of their accesses to public utilities and assets in order to save America’s infrastructure. 

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Caltrans Call to Action: Putting the Structure back in Infrastructure

In 2013 the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rated our infrastructure at a marginally acceptable (D+) level and estimated that a 3.6 trillion dollar investment is needed to bring our facilities up to standard by 2020. Many people don’t realize the importance of this, so allow me to borrow the opening words to the ASCE 2013 Report Card  in an effort to explain. “Infrastructure is the foundation that connects our nation’s business, communities, and families, driving our economy and improving our quality of life.” The report card is a comprehensive assessment of current infrastructure conditions and needs across 16 categories. Of all the categories analyzed, surface transportation is the largest perpetrator of the high investment quote with an estimated 1.7 trillion dollar investment. However, politicians recognize that only about 40% of Americans are interested in the crisis our outdated transportation system has initiated, and the nation’s disinterest is reflected in the lack of action to remedy the situation. What we as a nation have failed to realize is the impact that allowing our transportation systems to deteriorate is having on the economy. As Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Mayor, states in the introductory video to ASCE’s report card “[We] can’t run a 21st century economy, on a 20th century foundation. [We] need a modern system.” Every year we fail to act, the required investment grows exponentially, and failure to invest is leading to lost efficiency, jobs, and even lives  as the damages become increasingly devastating. So we need to invest, and we need to do it now, but where do we start? Surface transportation involves many subcategories that could easily make investment complicated, but the solution lies in repurposing our available resources and concentrating on expanding one area at a time. Although implementing a strategy like this has never been done and will come with various challenges, I am confident that a leading state in urbanization like California can set the standard for the rest of the nation to successfully update the transportation systems by repurposing available funds and tackling public transit first.

Before doing a national analysis, the ASCE rated the infrastructure of each state and assessed Californian infrastructure to have a C ratingnot as bad as it could be right? Wrong. The estimated necessary investment to bring our facilities up to an acceptable standard is 65 billion dollars, thus our arguably passing scores really mean that there are still many issues to be resolved. Traditionally, we have relied on the federal government to provide funding to improve our infrastructure. California, due to its highly urbanized population, and the high revenue we generate, has been able to successfully lobby for federal support. In fact until now, it was very common for all states to provide only about one fifth of the capital for their transportation projects and according to Los Angeles City Mayor Eric Garcetti, it is still the government’s responsibility to fund our infrastructure efforts. However that approach will not be able to completely satisfy our needs for much longer. It is estimated that the federal road fund will run out of capital in as little as two years, and this may an overestimation now that many of the states have been prompted to improve their infrastructure by the ASCE report card. So what can we do to be prepared? The answer is support Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) that will help the public sector reinforce the idea of adjusting one surface transportation system at a time. PPPs can be key during the development phase of cities by promoting lower parking requirements and increasing transit access to promote transit ridership. However, aside from investment aid, PPPs can aid in stirring interest towards the use of trains, light rail, and transit by providing deeply discounted or free transit passes, shuttles, or pricing parking adequately. Many organizations, like the University of Southern California (USC) have already begun to implement these strategies. USC has accomplished this by teaming up with transportation providers like rideshare and metro to provide alternate methods of commuting, establishing shuttles to and from its campuses, Union Station, and LA Live, and limiting the available parking spaces in and around campus by ensuring high rates comparable to parking in Los Angeles. Collaborations between different government agencies and private service providers are important because they help the transportation system in California, especially in heavily populated cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

Many will scoff at my idea of updating public transit first because everyone drives, whether it’s to commute to work, commute to school, or even just to take a trip to the grocery store. Californians have such a commuter oriented mentality that it has become the norm to drive anywhere from 20 – 45 miles into work every day, but it doesn’t have to be that way. People think they are so clever when they avoid the expensive properties in large cities by moving further out into the suburbs and commute in to work. In reality, this practice costs Californians anywhere from $5,000 to $11,000 in additional expenses every year. According to The Mile Marker, a report from Caltrans on the status of their performance, the hours of delay experienced on highways have dramatically increased since 2009, especially for people in Los Angeles who are twice as likely to experience them. In addition, the ASCE found that 12% of our brides are structurally deficient, another 17% of them are considered functionally obsolete, and 68% of the major roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Some may ask themselves, how did we allow our system to get so bad? Our current revenue is increasingly generated from cents-per-gallon gas taxes, which with time have diminished as cars are increasingly designed to travel larger distances without requiring drivers to purchase as much gas. Although this is important in order to protect our environment by continuing to reduce our emissions, there are other areas of our transportation system that could be adjusted to increase revenue. Much of the lack of maintenance, and shortage of funds that the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is facing, is due to the inadequate pricing for transportation services.  For example, our fixed rate bridge tolls, and all day flat fee parking, sometimes even free, need to be corrected to reflect the true costs of peak period travel. Adjusting the prices will also help offset the decreasing revenue from gasoline taxes, and once they are adjusted and people look for more economic methods of transportation, the California high-speed rail and other transit projects will be safer options.

With the support of multiple politicians, California has been successful in receiving additional funding totaling 4.2 billion specifically for the California high-speed rail project. The bonus was granted due to this project being one of the only ones of its kind and because many other states are using the funds they were provided to increase speeds on their already existing Amtrak systems. While the high-speed rail project in California is intended to compete with the large use of cars for transportation, a report produced by reason.org speculates that the project will not in fact deliver the reductions it is promising. This report states the lower fare costs will most likely compete with those who travel by plane as opposed to those who travel by car, because with a car it is possible to go directly from point A to Point B. By taking the train, accommodations for travel from the station to the final destination will still need to be made, adding to the overall cost of the trip, and prompting the public to continue using their cars. However as we have already discussed, the fares for our transportation services need to be updated, once this is done the rates of mass transit systems including the California high-speed rail will more directly compete with the cost of travel by car. Furthermore, focusing on the mass transit system will also allow many car drivers who do not need to drive to use the roads and highways less frequently. Ultimately that would help with the congestion problem and in turn reduce the stress on these systems and increase their usable lives.

All of California’s transportation projects are large multibillion-dollar projects, and our current approach to fix a little bit of everything with the same budget is not providing timely results. If we remain unorganized, and pour all of our resources into fixing all aspects of transportation at the same time, we will continue to inefficiently attempt to improve everything without making any large impacts to any system. It is because of the lack of impact that dividing our transportation budget into multiple projects in multiple areas causes that I propose we focus on improving one area of transportation at a time. The example that California would set for the rest of the nation includes first and foremost a renovation of the state mass transit system. By improving this area first, the state encourages partnerships between private organizations and the public sector to offset the cost of commuting to work. After the mass transit system is updated and working efficiently, the state could then move on to improve its highways, roads, and bridges, to allow alternate routes for those who prefer to drive or need to drive. By focusing on each project in the proposed way we can ensure that all of the projects will be completed in a timely and accurate manner, and propose a feasible plan to improve our transportation systems across the nation, with options for everyone’s preferred method. Therefore, the call to action is not only for Caltrans to focus our resources on one project at a time, but also to the residents of California. Because it will only be through public request and support that our policies and implementation will change.