How to Save Billions on Infrastructure
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“Infrastructure” is the buzzword of the day. Both presidential candidates used infrastructure as talking points to further their campaigns. Trump vowed to increase infrastructure spending from the $300+/- billion passed by the Obama administration to $1 trillion dollars. That’s a hard number to get even your calculator to comprehend. Our infrastructure is over 70 years old, our bridges are crumbling our roads are full of potholes with hour-long travel backups, and ports too small for today’s container ships. Roads are overcrowded and our railway systems are in dire need of upgrading. President-elect Trump’s transportation initiative will pour billions into upgrading our roads and railways and adding new bridges…but what about the billions in existing transportation funding? With so much money already budgeted for infrastructure why are our roadways and bridges in such a state of disrepair and what can we do about it?
Federal funds are set aside for the states, much of it is discretionary and states have discretion in diverting 25% of those funds into other projects. With the fund already in a shortfall status that does not help matters. In an article written by Michael Sargent;
“In fiscal year (FY) 2015, Highway Trust Fund spending is projected to reach $52 billion. The Highway Account is expected to spend $44 billion, but take in only $34 billion in revenue and interest, while the Mass Transit Account is expected to spend $8 billion compared with $5 billion in revenue, resulting in a combined deficit of $13 billion.
The annual deficits are expected to grow. By 2025, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts that the Highway Trust Fund will take in only $38 billion, but spend $60 billion for a $22 billion deficit if current trends continue. If the Highway Trust Fund continues spending as projected by the CBO, it would generate a $180 billion deficit over the next decade, pushing the potential cumulative shortfall to $168 billion.
Congress and the states divert roughly 25 percent of the Highway Trust Fund spending to non-highway projects that are not federal priorities. The largest of these diversions is the Mass Transit Account, which spent some $8 billion in 2014 on buses, rail, streetcars, and other projects that should fall under the responsibility of municipal or state governments. Other programs include the Transportation Alternatives Program, which spent $820 million in 2014 on undertakings such as sidewalks, bike paths, scenic overlooks, vegetation management, and recreational trails. These diversions sap funds that could be spent on the highway system—the purpose of the highway trust fund—and shortchange the motorists and shippers that pay directly into the system through fuel taxes.”
Why is transportation infrastructure important?
Transportation infrastructure is the lifeblood of a civilized society. The economy relies on healthy transportation infrastructure in order to compete on a global basis as well as support a healthy economy at home. Transportation infrastructure relates to the efficient movement of people & goods which is essential for building a strong economy and improving the quality of life and continued prosperity of its citizens. In other words, the quality and efficiency of a nation’s infrastructure can be directly correlated to the economic success of that country. Being able to efficiently transport goods would mean lower costs allowing us to be more competitive with our international neighbors.
Many US Ports even today are not large enough to utilize the mammoth container ships that the renovated Panama canal is pushing through. Countries that can handle these ships, which are two to three times larger than the container ships that the USA can accommodate have a competitive advantage The ability to ship more goods at one time at a cheaper price is a huge advantage for both exports and imports over the USA. Our roads, clogged by increased residential development create traffic backups that cause our workforce to be late losing hundreds of thousands of productivity hours lost.
No one even considers the peripheral effects of having to wake up earlier to get to work at the same time. Less sleep more health issues and sick days create a cycle of lost productivity and opportunities. Delays for trucks mean that goods cannot get to market in a timely manner. Delays mean more gas, more man-hours increased costs, and fewer profits. I look at my own situation when I first moved to Marlboro New Jersey during a housing boom. My initial commute to NYC was 50 min to the Lincoln Tunnel. Two years and a few thousand houses later my commute currently takes 1hr 15minutes to the tunnel and a bigger gap for the commute home. Getting through the tunnel can be 15min to another hour depending on delays.
So how do we fix the problem? Not only fix the issues but fix them within existing budgets while being able to utilize new transportation funding to build new railroads, highways, and mass transit systems that will make our economy more efficient by a multiplier effect. It starts with setting up a mandate to utilize existing funding that is already paid out to the states which in turn contract infrastructure asset management companies to update the current 50-year-old inspection methods to ensure that the best technology and tools are being utilized to inspect existing infrastructure assets. By inspecting properly and finding deterioration and issues as early as possible and curing those issues we can extend the service life of those assets for years.
Current technology is capable of examining a structure’s integrity and its underlying support systems and when repairs need to be made. This not only allows us to better budget infrastructure expenditures but creates a safer infrastructure for the public. This can also prevent emergency replacements of deficient infrastructure assets that end up costing billions in what may have been avoided costs if proper preventative maintenance activities were performed.
In the event that you missed that comment, we are currently using 50-year-old manual inspection methods to inspect our bridges, roadways, and dams. Yes, these inspection methods predate the advent of the computer and are still in use today as the primary means of inspecting our infrastructure. During a bridge inspection, we are still dragging a chain across a bridge deck vs using modern methods to record cracks in a bridge deck, delamination, and void formations. By utilizing current technology we can graph deterioration over time and schedule repairs so issues do not become too costly or a danger to the public. We need to push for change on both the federal and state levels now.
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Infraspect is a nondestructive testing and robotic engineering company specializing in updating 50-year-old manual inspections with modern robotics. Focused on transportation infrastructure these inspections are more accurate, less subjective, and offer qualitative data that help us extend the service life of critical infrastructure assets.