Orange County Branch Newsletter

August 2015

President's Message

Time For A New Dialogue With The Public On Infrastructure

By Gary Gilbert, PE, GE

The recent loss of a bridge on Interstate 10 is another reminder of the importance in replacing our failing infrastructure.  In the past, each time Caltrans stated that all the bridges in the state are safe, I had the feeling they were not telling the whole story. The images from this recent incident has us questioning just how safe our bridges really are.  Although no loss of life occurred with the bridge being washed out, loosing access to a major transportation corridor in California has a huge impact on the lives of the citizens and the commerce in this state.  I believe we need to start a new dialogue with the public on infrastructure.  We need to raise awareness that many existing structures may be not be usable in the future and funds for infrastructure will increasingly go towards emergency repairs instead of adding capacity.
The first part of the discussion should be about keeping critical infrastructure operational during extreme events like flooding and earthquakes.  The current approach is more focused on life safety and the resilience of new structures to survive catastrophic events, but we are not usually looking at the whole system from a regional and state level.  Civil Engineers, elected officials, agencies, and the public should identify key lifelines that are expected to be operational after a major natural disaster.   A regular source of revenue would need to be identified and the sources would likely include a combination of tolls, gas taxes, user fees, and vehicle miles traveled.  Bonds are short term and not a good source of revenue for long term infrastructure projects. New revenue with specific projects outlined to be completed over a specific time period have been very successful in both Los Angeles (Measure R) and Orange (Measure M) Counties and it is time to look at similar programs regionally and statewide.
Another part of the dialogue should be about designing future infrastructure for longer life expectancy.  We don’t have the funds to replace most of the infrastructure in Southern California after a catastrophic event.  As can be seen in recent earthquakes in New Orleans, Haiti, Nepal, and Japan, communities take decades to recover from major disasters.  The reduction of required maintenance in the future is a key component of longevity.  Usually maintenance is cut during economic downturns and most often, the frequency is not restored.  The lack of maintenance significantly reduces the design life of the structures.  Designers should also be looking at developing repair schemes that could be quickly implemented if the structure is damaged by a design level event.  Infrastructure can also be designed for future upgrades that can be implemented later to extend the life of the infrastructure.  Another component of longevity is to develop new technologies to create systems for retrofitting and modifying existing infrastructure to reduce the impacts to the public.  Historic buildings are being retrofitted in downtown Los Angeles to extend their lives and upgrades have been performed on existing bridges to survive larger earthquakes.  We should build upon the lessons learned and continue to grow this field so we can continue to build new infrastructure instead of spending most of our funds on replacing what is existing.
What I find surprisingly is the importance that aesthetics has become in the development of infrastructure projects. The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic piece of infrastructure that has increased access to Marin County and become a major tourist destination.  We can’t afford to make every structure as beautiful as the Golden Gate Bridge, but we can always do better than the past.  For example we have been seeing improvements that are underway, where architectural features are incorporated into transportation projects.  Building a unique structure that is elegant and practical in a community can build support for future infrastructure projects.  The basket bridge over Interstate 210 for the new Metro Gold Line Extension is a good example of what can be done.  Although these projects cost more, most new infrastructure will be designed for 100 or more years and can often times divide communities.  Walking around the urban environment I have realized most people don’t typically cross rivers and highways on foot.  By having select projects that are aesthetically pleasing we can reconnect communities and create a positive image of Civil Engineers. 
Most of the parts I discussed in the new dialogue for infrastructure relate to sustainability.  We have tools such as the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) Envision and the Green Building Council’s LEED programs.  Now is the time for Civil Engineers to look at how we can use the concepts of sustainability to create a new message to the public where they can see value in these projects and we can gain their support.
I am excited that the Sustainability Committee at the ASCE Orange County Branch is one of our fastest growing and most active committees.  There is already a lot Civil Engineers working on components of what will be the next vision in infrastructure. I hope that the ASCE Orange County branch can facilitate to bring these leaders together to create a coherent message that non-engineers can understand and support.
The ASCE Orange County Branch is developing a Publicity Committee with this goal in mind.  In October of this year we are bringing leaders from ASCE Society in Virginia to hold a four hour seminar called Public Relations University.  We hope that members of ASCE in Orange County will attend this event and help us create a committee that starts a dialogue with the public to address the growing infrastructure issues in Orange County and California.  The ASCE Orange County Report card is currently being updated with help from the University of California Irvine Civil and Environmental Engineering Affiliates that will be a resource for members of the new Publicity Committee.  I am excited about this new opportunity and I hope you will join us.