Orange County Branch Newsletter

August 2012

Secretary's Column

Time to Change the Message on Infrastructure

By Gary Gilbert, PE, GE

When ASCE started more actively engaging politians and the public about the urgent need to invest in infrastructure, every year we were making great progress.  At that time it felt like we were on the edge of finally addressing the infrastructure funding shortfalls.  In 2006, California passed bond measures for both transportation and water, closed loopholes in the use of the gas tax for transportation, and Orange County extended Measure M.  Then in 2008, voters approved the bond for high speed rail and Los Angeles County passed Measure R.  Since 2008, the tone regarding infrastructure funding has changed.  There is a chorus of Americans preaching that we can no longer afford to pay for infrastructure.  Others are insinuating most infrastructure projects are "pork," and the only reason why they are funded is to get politicians elected.  Some of the arguments are valid, money has been allocated in the past for bridges to nowhere and most funding is focused on single projects instead of improvements to the whole system.  My concern is that the greater problem is not being addressed, which is that the public doesn't fully understand the costs of inaction.  Despite what ASCE Society has been doing on the national level with the recent Failure to Act economic studies, the message is not reaching the non-civil engineers.  Civil Engineers need to start talking to their neighbors and friends about this issue.  Topics should include the condition of infrastructure that was constructed in the 1940s through 1970s that is currently decaying rapidly and is in desperate need of repair to remain reliable.  How do we get Americans to start taking action to help solve the developing infrastructure crisis.  

My grandma who grew up in rural Illinois would tell of the times when they had only dirt roads and no electricity.  They would wash clothes by hand and have to farm for their own food.  After she retired, she did not spend money on things she wanted to do, but saved money to make sure her grandchildren had a better life than she did.  When it came time to vote they always voted yes for infrastructure funding.  When I prepared to vote for the first time, the only advice that was consistent from my parents and grandparents was to always vote yes on funding for schools and infrastructure.  Learning more about the history of how the infrastructure that we rely on was constructed in this county, I realize that my grandmother was not the only one of her generation making sacrifices to make sure that their grandchildren had a brighter future.  

During the Great Depression voters in Los Angeles passed a bond to fund the Colorado Aqueduct system, which included Hoover Dam.  This project was built not just for the demand of the day, but for the demand of future generations.  Voters later passed another water bond in 1960 to fund the construction of the State Water Project.  When I was growing up, we didn't think much about letting the hose run for hours.  The cost for water in the 1980s was virtually free.  Now 75 years after the completion of the Colorado Aqueduct system, it is becoming more difficult to supply clean drinking water to a continually growing population in Southern California.  The water agencies have realized this and have developed tiered rates that make homeowners aware of the scarcity of supply.  There is still a concern about the reliability of the existing system, from both the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta.  How do we get the message across to the public in a way that they understand that no matter how bad the economy is now, the devastation from the loss of one of these water supplies would be so severe that it makes sense starting to improve the existing systems now?  

For transportation, sacrifices were also made during the Great Depression to pay for the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in San Francisco.  Later, the interstate highway system was a huge catalyst for the growth of the California economy from the 1960s to the 1980s, but now we are just trying to maintain a level of service D on our freeways.  The East LA interchange was constructed as the heart of the interstate highway system in Los Angeles.  My grandparents who moved from Illinois to Burbank were proud of the highway system in Los Angeles, as if they had personally built it themselves.  They would frequently talk of the days when they would just drive for fun along the coast on a Sunday afternoon.  As the roadways become more congested, the joy of driving is quickly disappearing.  It wasn't until I saw the construction and completion of the widening of Interstate 5 between State Route 57 and State Route 91 that I started to believe that it is impossible to widen freeways fast enough to keep up with demand.  A few months after completion of the widening, the traffic was back.  When I used to drive from Northern to Southern California, I could see the impacts of over use of the transportation system.  The pavement was in disrepair and constantly being replaced.  I spent too many trips sitting in stopped traffic in the middle of nowhere.  Most of this is due to the amount of trucks traveling on the highways.  The two lanes on Interstate 5 are no longer able to keep up with the demand.  Now I make less trips and fly to visit my parents.  I am no longer willing to pay for the loss of valuable time.  Taking the plane is not much better, but at least I can read a book.  There seems to be a consensus amongst the public that highways are free. but the lack of maintenance is developing into a large bill that will be due soon.  Recently, I read that there are no plans to widen the East LA Interchange, the heart of the transportation system in Los Angeles.  How can the highway system continue to function in Los Angeles if the East LA Interchange is never improved?  In the Bay Area, most commuters pay a toll to enter San Francisco, which helps to pay for the current replacement of the Bay Bridge and the maintenance of existing bridges.  Would commuters in LA be open to paying a toll to go through the East LA Interchange if the funds were used to improve the interchange?  Could tolls be added to other freeways to pay for improvements to existing transportation systems?  Could an approach similar to tiered rates for water be applied to transportation systems?  

Regarding funding for infrastructure projects, there are other sources besides bonds, taxes, and tolls that could be used.  Pension funds are always looking for ways to have a safe investment with reasonable return on investment.  The investments could be made over 20 or more years.  I understand that one of the pension funds in California recently was involved in the purchase of a railway in England.  If we could get the California pension funds to invest in infrastructure in California wouldn't they be helping out the employees who are contributing to the retirement program?  I understand that some limited investment from pension funds is currently available in California, but a small portions compared to what they are spending in other countries.  How to can we increase the amount that pension funds invest in California without having an undue negative effect on the return on their investment?

I am not sure what the answer to the problem with infrastructure investment is, but the discussion with the public needs to change.  Civil Engineers should be leaders in providing more awareness to the issues and the possible solutions.  Could we do commercials that inform the public of the urgency of the problem?  Should we have a big event outside the State Capital demanding that action be taken?  Or are we just going to wait until something fails and take all the blame for not doing more?  We need to build a new generation that is looking towards the future and realizes that sacrifices need to be made now so that our country can continue to grow in the future.  Reliable infrastructure is an important part of a health economy.

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