Orange County Branch Newsletter

February 2013

President's Message

President's Message - Spread the Word

By Tapas Dutta, P.E.



Two years ago I was in the front row at a Jay Leno stand-up comedy show at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach.  As he is known to do, Mr. Leno targeted guests in the front row asking each “What do you do for a living” and making impromptu jokes at the guest’s expense.  When it was my turn, I simply said “Engineer”, and Mr. Leno made jokes about Amtrak “engineers” drinking on the job.  Jay Leno is widely regarded as having his finger on the pulse of the “common man” and his response to the word “engineer” was to revert to the archaic definition for the operator of a locomotive.  I use “archaic” because in the modern definition of the word, as evidenced by a simple search of Wikipedia and Dictionary.com, the primary meaning of the word is the technical professional that most readers of this article are likely to be.

We know what we do and how critical it is to our community, economy and the future.  We must do a better job in educating everyone – and by extension our elected officials of the importance of civil engineering.  Most of this article will appear to be the proverbial “preaching to the choir” to most readers.  I am providing facts, figures and counter arguments that many civil engineers can use while actively “selling” our profession.  In the words of Past ASCE Society President, Wayne Klotz, PE, FASCE, “We are either on the table, or on the menu.”  If we don’t advocate for ourselves, who will?

What we do

Civil Engineers affect civilization.  We provide the necessary infrastructure for life:  designing, building and maintaining, transportation systems, buildings & facilities, water systems, drainage systems and waste systems.  Without our expertise, no community can survive.

State of our infrastructure

You may have heard of ASCE, with our other partners, coming up with Report Cards.  These have been done at the national, state and county levels.  The last two cycles of the California Infrastructure Report Card was done in 2006 and 2012.  Analysis was done in eight categories:  Aviation, Flood Control, Ports, Solid Waste, Transportation, Urban Runoff, Wastewater and Water.  Although the overall grade improved slightly from C- (2006) to C (2012), no one would conclude that that the state of our infrastructure is satisfactory.  The cost of annual investment to bring our aging systems (California) to satisfactory conditions was estimated at $37 billion in 2006; the number had risen to $65 billion in 2012.  In other words, with every passing year of reduced funding for infrastructure we fall further and further behind.  For more details on the California infrastructure report card, visit: www.ascecareportcard.org.

Effects of a crumbling infrastructure

It is important to remind everyone that we plan and build for tomorrow.  For roadways and highways, for example, today’s project is designed to serve the community 20 years in the future.  We could all agree that it is tragic to wait for the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota or the levee breach resulting from Hurricane Katrina to occur before we react. In simple terms, outdated infrastructure causes delays in goods and people movement, lowers the reliability and levels of services of water and waste water systems and has the potential to end up in making the front page when disaster strikes.  The direct result to a community with sub-standard infrastructure is lowering of property values and driving away businesses.  On the other hand, infrastructure investment directly results in job growth.  There have been studies indicating that that every dollar spent in infrastructure in California creates $4 for the economy.

ASCE has been working on a “Failure to Act” initative.  The studies focused on the economic consequences of continued underinvestment in infrastructure.  The culminating report, released on January 15, 2013, indicates that at the current rate of investment, there will be a gap of $1.1 trillion dollars by the year 2020, nationally. By investing an additional $157 billion a year through 2020, the US can eliminate the loss of $3.1 trillion in GDP and create 3.5 million more jobs. More details of this study may be found here: www.asce.org/failuretoact.

What about the “self serving” argument

Naysayers may argue that the ASCE Report Cards and Failure to Act studies are self-serving.  The answer is:

All the ASCE reports are done with complete transparency with sources, methodologies and analysis fully vetted by independent experts and readily available to all.

Who else but Civil Engineers would have the expertise to analyze and determine the state of our infrastructure?  Like law enforcement experts providing data on crime statistics and prevention and the AMA providing the state of our nation’s health, the ASCE is providing the state of our nation’s infrastructure.

What about competing needs for funding

In 2012, I participated in two trips to Sacramento under ASCE to talk to our legislators of the importance of infrastructure funding.  The recurring theme that we heard from our legislators was to the effect:  Yes, we agree that infrastructure is important but in this economy we have many competing needs such as education, health and social services.  Those are valid points; however everyone should be reminded that without adequate investment in our infrastructure, we cannot sustain a healthy community.  The downward economic spiral from crumbling infrastructure will render the need for those other important services increasingly moot.  Infrastructure spending has to be elevated to its appropriate importance level in everybody’s mind. 

Currently, infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP is the lowest it has ever been.  In the transportation sector, for example, the US spent only 2.4% of its GDP (2011) compared to Europe (5%) and China (9%). In 2011, the US ranked 23rd in overall infrastructure quality, between Spain and Chile. (Source: The World Economic Forum)

What can we do

Take advantage of National Engineers Week (February 17-23, 2013) to “Spread the Word” on Engineers.

Recognize your fellow engineer by nominating them for individual or project awards. On February 21, the ASCE Orange County Branch is having its awards night and I hope many of you will attend in celebrating our profession.

We need to become active advocates for our profession and what we bring to our communities.  Educate your friends and neighbors about what we do as civil engineers.  Yes, we may not necessarily have a glamorous profession in the public eye, but we have a critical and important one that all should recognize as such.  We would like to live in a world where a Jay Leno asks, “Engineer?  What kind, Civil, Mechanical…”

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