America's Infrastructure Engineering Dilemma
Physical infrastructure, once the pride of America and a major contributor to its economic and social growth and success, has in recent years become an acute embarrassment to this nation. Infrastructure failures, ineffectiveness, and the inability to properly plan, construct, manage, and maintain it now pose an acute challenge to America’s claims of economic, social, environmental, and technological leadership.
Most of our road, rail, water, sewer, electric power, wired telephone, and other distributed systems infrastructure are old and in need of repair. Our ports, airports, and rail terminals are archaic, ill designed, badly run, and poorly maintained.
Levees, coastal defenses, and dams often lack effective inspection and maintenance. In New Orleans, the core of many levees had been washed out, causing them to fail – a fact not discovered by simple visual levee surface inspection. Yet seismic measurements would have readily identified the growing problem for timely remedial action.
Similarly, the recent Minnesota highway bridge collapse should have been prevented by proper timely inspection and maintenance. But most of our infrastructure is 50 years old or older, uses outdated designs and engineering, and has experienced little if any maintenance updating or repair. We do not have or use advanced infrastructure testing, inspection, or maintenance management methods.
Performance of recent infrastructure projects such as Boston’s “Big Dig,” its Kenmore Square bus station, New Orleans’ levee reconstruction, and various dams, bridges, port and airport projects are a reminder of how far this country has sunk in its public infrastructure development capability. Rapidly developing new economies such as China, Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, and others all place great emphasis not only on the timely and efficient development of infrastructure, but also on effective maintenance, updating, and constant improvements of these essential systems.
I just returned from Shanghai and Ningbo in Central China, two cities which, in 1998 when I planned their ports, were connected by one 2x2-lane highway. Since then, this roadway has been enlarged to a 4x4-lane highway, and an additional new 80 km causeway bridge road connector with 4x4 lanes will soon be inaugurated. Large American construction firms, once global leaders in their field, are increasingly being shunned for large projects abroad such as this because of their lack of advanced engineering, planning, and implementation.
Much of this may be the result of educational priorities given to high technology, with fewer students interested in infrastructure-type problems that include civil and mechanical engineering, as well as electrical and nuclear engineering. MIT established many of the norms and procedures that still serve some sectors, such as the nuclear power industry. Professor Norman Rasmussen established the standards for reactor safety and taught reliability, maintenance, and repair of nuclear reactors for many years. The enviable safety records of that industry are a monument to his contribution to engineering education. Similarly, excellent courses were offered in engineering project and risk management that served generations of engineers to effectively plan, design, and maintain large-scale and often sophisticated infrastructure projects.
Significant research also went into the development of materials, fabrication processes, surface treatments, material handling and forming. All this allowed America to advance its infrastructure and thereby economy and quality of life for a long time. Yet, today we are faced with a debt-ridden economy, decrepit infrastructure, and an educational system that largely trains engineering scientists and not engineers, and an infrastructure badly in need of complete rework, update, and modernization. We teach logistics but not transport planning and engineering, and as a result have some of the world’s worst airports, train stations, bus terminals, roads, and rail networks.
Infrastructure engineering offers many technically and scientifically exciting challenges, and American ingenuity could again lead the world in developing a new generation of infrastructure. But this will only happen if American universities reverse their priorities and reemphasize the challenges in infrastructure engineering by developing formal programs in the field. There are many technological and scientific challenges in the planning/design, use, and maintenance of future infrastructure that are no less exciting than those in so-called high tech areas, from advanced design to sophisticated testing, control, and operations management methods.
Infrastructure is the lifeblood of an economy and continued failure to address its needs will invariably lead to decline, particularly in an American economy increasingly based on services and not on manufacturing and agriculture.
Unless we train a larger cadre of new, well-educated, committed engineers to develop a new generation of essential infrastructure, America’s economic future may well be in danger.
Our competitors, such as China, India, and others, train proportionally a much larger number of engineers committed to and capable of advancing their infrastructure. This will give them an enormous advantage in facing increasingly complex economic challenges.
Many of our competitors build major infrastructure in less than half the time and at less than half the cost as we do. They increasingly dominate the global infrastructure engineering and project market, a sector in which U.S. firms led not too long ago. In many Asian countries as much as 30% of engineering research funding is for infrastructure design, technology, materials, testing, and fabrication research – and that percentage is growing.
There are estimates that the U.S. will have to spend as much as 5% of its GNP (or over $600b/year) for infrastructure repair, replacement, and expansion for many years to come if it wants to remain competitive in the international economy. Unless American institutions of higher learning recognize these needs and develop required programs to train the professionals needed, America’s infrastructure will continue to atrophy and its competitiveness decline.