In This Issue
Transportation Infrastructure
June 1, 2008 Volume 38 Issue 2
Transportation Infrastructure issue of The Bridge, Volume 38, Number 2, Summer 2008

Infrastructure and Transportation: Our Nation at a Crossroads (Editorial)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: George Bugliarello

Editor’s Note

From the very beginning of our history, infrastructure has been a foundation of growth and prosperity for our country, and it has become increasingly important as we continue to expand economically and demographically.

Today, however, much of that foundation is inadequate in capacity and performance and in need of maintenance and repair, close surveillance, and assessment. In addition, substantial portions of our infrastructure are vulnerable to environmental disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and rising sea level, as well as to hostile attacks. Yet, in our desire for greater economic efficiency, we continue to reduce redundancies and increase interdependencies among our infrastructure systems, often doing away with our margins of safety. In addition, a lack of capital is inducing some infrastructure owners in the public sector to sell, lease, or outsource our common infrastructural systems.

The consequences, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the dangerous overcrowding of air lanes, are still vivid and hardly bear re-emphasizing. So are the D-minus safety and performance ratings (by the American Society of Civil Engineers) of major elements of the civil engineering infrastructure and the concerns of the Department of Homeland Security about the lack of resilience in our critical infrastructures. Sobering cautionary messages are also implicit in outrageous cost overruns, as in the “Big Dig” in Boston.

The infrastructure problem is enormous in its dimensions; its causes and remedies are complex; and the need to address them is urgent. The nation is at a crossroads—should we continue to make expedient fixes, hoping they will suffice in the short term, or should we rethink fundamentally the role of infrastructure in our future, reconsider our choices and opportunities, and reassess the roadblocks facing us.

Clearly, we need to rethink. The evidence is all around us, whether we look at the tens of thousands of bridges that have raised concerns about their structural integrity or at the crowding of our port facilities or at the inanity of continuing to expand short-range commercial air traffic to make up for our substandard passenger rail system; whether we look at congested, polluting highway traffic, often traveling on deteriorating pavement, or at the lack of efficient, affordable urban and suburban mass transit systems; whether we look at the frequent failures of water, gas, and steam pipes under our older cities or at the risks associated with our overburdened power grids or the growing demands on our water supply and waste-disposal systems.

An efficient infrastructure is essential to a competitive economy. Flight delays at La Guardia Airport propagate to delays in many other airports throughout the United States, with significant economic consequences. Imagine what shutting down New York City as a whole, or Chicago, Los Angeles, or any other major city would do to our nation and the world economy. Cities themselves should be considered critical elements of the infrastructure, mega-infrastructure, if you will. Their dysfunctionalities and poor responses to disaster can affect the entire nation.

It may cost as much as 1 percent of our annual GDP to bring the entire infrastructure to an adequate condition. However, at a time when social demands for health care and education and the needs of the military and homeland defense are making very large, urgent claims on our national budget, even 1 percent would be so onerous as to be deemed politically unrealistic.

But it is even more unrealistic to expect that, with critical components of the infrastructure in substandard condition, obsolete, or in need of repair, the nation can remain globally competitive and secure. We need to determine, with as much confidence as possible, the extent to which the costs of fixing our infrastructure will be offset by increases in productivity, savings in energy, improved security, and a healthier environment. The creation of an up-to-date infrastructure will require an intense national dialogue and a willingness to stretch our political will, technological creativity, and financial savvy to the limit.

Upgrading the infrastructure presents a host of engineering challenges, ranging from how to increase capacity through intelligent systems to building elements of the infrastructure that can be deconstructed and recycled, self-monitored, self-diagnosed, to some extent self-repaired, and protected against cascading failures of interdependent systems. Creating the infrastructure of the future will certainly require reinvesting in long-range research.

The Bridge has repeatedly addressed aspects of the infrastructure problem. In this issue, we focus on transportation, the logistic lifeline of our economy and our way of life. Robert Skinner, the executive director of the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council, addresses the challenges in designing and reconstructing highways and provides an overview of prospects for new transportation technologies. Joseph Sussman, professor at MIT and chair of an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Transportation, makes a strong argument for intelligent transportation systems to improve traffic on our roads and highways. Ted Galambos, Emeritus Professor, University of Minnesota, describes the causes of bridge failures and the lessons learned from the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge in August 2007.

John Samuels, former head of Norfolk Southern Railroad, describes the ongoing renaissance of the freight railroad system in the United States and the technologies that are making it possible. Keith Michel, CEO of Herbert Engineering, and Peter Noble, of ConocoPhillips, provide an overview of new technologies in the maritime industry. Finally, Richard de Neufville, chairman of the MIT Technology and Policy Program, argues that we need new strategic thinking and flexible design in building airport systems for the next generation.

The deficiencies in our transportation systems and other components of our infrastructures cannot be addressed piecemeal. They demand that we develop a national plan and a systematic and farsighted approach to financing and technological innovation based on a realistic public understanding of what is at stake.

About the Author:George Bugliarello is Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Engineering and Interim Editor in Chief of The Bridge