Between the endless fiscal problems, the divisive politics, and the response from the thirsty Republican senator, it was easy to miss one of the most dramatic moments of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech. And there’s a pretty good chance it directly affected viewers on their morning commutes the next day.
Seventy-thousand bridges in America are structurally deficient, the president said, a reference that got little media attention at the time. (“Seventy thousand structurally deficient,” The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart deadpanned later. “I mean, come on! Shouldn’t you have opened with that?”)
The exact total is 67,526 out of 605,086 bridges in all, or about 11 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration. These bridges carry 300 million vehicles per day. They’d cost $188 billion and take 20 years to fix, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE. And they’re only part of the massive engineering challenge of maintaining America’s deteriorating infrastructure.
“We have to educate our politicians, educate the public, about what is so important about engineering and how it affects our quality of life,” says Andy Herrmann, the ASCE’s immediate past president and a principal at Hardesty & Hanover Consulting Engineers. “Because ignoring this problem isn’t going to make it go away.”
The president wants Congress to spend $50 billion on what he calls the “Fix-It-First” program, $40 billion of it on the “most urgent upgrades” and the rest to serve as seed money for a national infrastructure bank.
But the problem turns out to be bigger than just bridges. Drinking- and waste-water systems, electricity networks, airports and seaports, and roads need urgent upgrades, too, to the tune of an additional $157 billion a year in investment, the ASCE reports.
And since elected leaders seem in no hurry to fix them, Herrmann says, engineers need to take a more assertive role in reminding them why they don’t have any choice.
“A lot of our infrastructure is out of sight, out of mind. It’s not sexy,” Herrmann says. “Politicians are looking to get reelected. They are much more interested in cutting the ribbon on a new project than doing the maintenance that makes our infrastructure last longer.”
Herrmann notes that President Dwight Eisenhower set in motion the completion of the interstate highway system. President John F. Kennedy decreed that Americans should go to the moon.
“We really need some leadership that will take us back in that direction,” he says.
And not only for the sake of prestige. If needed repairs aren’t made to the nation’s infrastructure, the ASCE calculates, it will cost the United States $3.1 trillion in gross national product by 2020, including $1.1 trillion in trade, causing a $3,100 per year drop in personal disposable income, $2.4 trillion in lost consumer spending, and more than 3.1 million jobs.
The ASCE report Failure to Act, The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future, out in March, finds that by 2020, there will have been a gap between what is scheduled to be spent and what should be spent on airports of $39 billion, on seaports and waterways of $16 billion, on roads and bridges of $846 billion, on electricity networks of $107 billion, and on drinking- and waste-water systems of $84 billion.
And every dollar spent now repairing roads alone saves between $6 and $14 in replacement costs later, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The ASCE gives America’s infrastructure a grade of D. And it’s not alone in its assessment. Not only the president, but also business leaders have begun to raise the alarm.
“Now is the time to bridge the gap between recognizing the needs and willingness to act, says Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation and infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—pun apparently not intended.
The good news is that, if the money and the political will come through to address this problem, there is plenty of work for civil engineers.
There are 278,400 civil engineers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That works out to just under four engineers per structurally deficient bridge.
The government expects that the number of civil-engineering jobs will increase much faster than the number of other jobs over the next five years. That’s forcing average earnings higher, which also is drawing more people into civil-engineering programs at universities and colleges, the American Society for Engineering Education says. Some 12,154 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in civil engineering in 2011, up from 8,006 in 2002. The number of master’s degrees during that time rose from 3,410 to 4,739.
“We should encourage more students, even at the kindergarten level, to get interested in engineering,” Herrmann says. “Look at what engineers do—the bridges, the roads, the buildings. It’s one of the unsung professions. But it’s important to our way of life.”