Episode 570 07.03.18

Kristina Swallow Talks Fixing Failing Infrastructure

Kristina Swallow, president, ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers), joined Peggy Smedley to kick off an amazing month addressing the state of infrastructure. They talked about the Infrastructure Report Card—and the areas where the nation is truly struggling most. With more than 20 years of professional practice in water resources, transportation, and land development, Swallow is very passionate about civil engineering and the benefits of infrastructure for communities, especially transportation systems. To learn more about ASCE effort, check out its app or its Website www.infrastructurereportcard.org

To hear this interview on The Peggy Smedley Show in its entirety, log onto www.peggysmedleyshow.com, and select 07/03/18 from the archives.

Swallow will also be speaking at the Technology Day event on Thursday, August 23. To learn more, visit https://constructech.com/tech-day/

Smedley:
So Kristina, we’ve been talking about the ASCE (America Society of Civil Engineers) grade that it gave America’s infrastructure. And it clearly was a failing grade. Now I’m not saying it didn’t deserve it. But as you know, in 2017, that D+ on its report card is certainly something we need to look at. In 2013, that grade wasn’t any better. So what do we need to do when we look at that? I guess maybe the question I should be asking is give us some background on that. Because I’ve talked about this several times. And maybe for listeners who don’t know, how did that report card come about? And why is this country doing so poorly, so that we understand how does a report card like this get created?

Swallow:
Yeah, those are great questions. To start with, how and why it got put together is where we should start.

So the American Society of Civil Engineers has been producing an infrastructure report card for roughly 20 years, every four years. That four year time frame gives us some time to do the actual work of putting it together. Also it gives us time to assess if there’s been any changes since the last one.

The report card is put together by a committee of over 30 technical experts. They review all the data and reports. They consult with the industry leaders. And then they assign grades for 16 categories of infrastructure. The categories include aviation, bridges, drinking water, hazardous waste, rails, schools, solid waste transit, waste water … the spectrum. 16 categories. They assign the grades using a letter grade format from A, which is exceptional. We all went to school. We know A is fantastic, to F, which is failing or critical.

The grades are assigned based on eight different criteria. So it’s not just current conditions, which I think sometimes people think about. But condition is definitely one of them. But it’s capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. So we’re looking at the full spectrum of needs of our infrastructure and how they serve our communities and how they’re going to serve our communities into the future when we look at these grades.

Smedley:
And looking at that, now when you look at the eight criteria, in order to give us this D+, it indicates in the eight categories that you have, we’re still not doing enough. There’s so much more we could do, just in saying capacity or public safety or resilience or any of the categories you talked about. It says to me that this is something we should all think really matters. But it seems, when I hear you talk about it, we still haven’t realized, either as a nation, or as government bodies or public and private companies or funding, there still seems to be a major disconnect. Am I wrong about that?

Swallow:
You know, there is a disconnect. I should highlight that since the last report card, of the 16 categories, seven of the categories did improve. Which indicates that, yes, there is a disconnect, but we are starting to see changes. We are starting to see investment at various levels and/or a recognition of policy changes that could help us improve our infrastructure.

The D+ definitely means we’re poor at that risk, but within there, our highest grade is rail. And it has a B. And the reason why the grade is so high is because the industry has invested in the rail to make sure that it can meet the needs of its customers and its service. So, unfortunately, three, of course, did fail. Parks, solid waste, and transit, with our lowest grade being a D-. You spoke to the fact that we should support it. And you know, interestingly, the public does support infrastructure. Over 80% of the public supports increased investment in infrastructure.

Smedley:
Is it because we lack the funds? Or is it because we want people to care then. Where is it the biggest need, where do we need more of it? Is it the funding area? … I mean, if any of us got a D+, I can tell you we’d be grounded. I know I’d have been grounded. You know. That’s the fact, right.

Swallow:
Oh yeah. I had a midterm—so not a final grade—of a D once, and it was terrible. So you’re right. It is bad. ASCE has identified three areas of solutions. One of them is investment. And I’ll talk about that in a second. But the other two are leadership. We need strong leaders to help advance infrastructure. And then the other one is planning for the future and making sure as we invest, which I’m going to get back to, as we invest, that investment is for projects that are built to last and built to meet the needs of tomorrow. Recognizing that the needs of today could very well change as we start to see our communities change, our world changing, much due to technology advancements.

So getting back to that investment piece. We’ve identified that between now and 2025, in order to bring the grades up to a B—and B just going back to it is good, it’s adequate for now; it might not be fantastic for the future, but it’s good—so bringing our grades up to a B would require us to invest $4.6 trillion. We’re currently only spending roughly $2.6 trillion. So there very much is an investment gap that we’re not realizing. And that needs to be invested. Otherwise, it hurts us on a daily basis, whether there’s communities that frequently, they’re on boil water or they don’t have water because there’s been a water main break. There’s recurring power outages. You get a flat tire because of the potholes on your road. You have to spend more money to maintain your car. Or you’re stuck in traffic. So that impacts us on a daily basis. But it also hurts our economy. If we don’t invest that additional $2 trillion, it will cost our economy $3.9 trillion. So double. It’s critically important for us on an individual basis, but also for the United States as a global economy.

Smedley:
Well, I had mentioned in the first segment, every time we don’t do something, it costs us as a homeowner, costs us as a business, it costs us personally. And that’s what you’re saying. So is it time? Because maybe we say we don’t have the taxpayer money, because that’s when we start talking about politics here. Do we need to start going after public-private partnerships? Do we need to go into the funding in a different way? Do we need to go into private funding? Is that what we need to do to get us over the hump, because as you say we’re at that $2.6 trillion, or do we need to keep going to get us over that?

Swallow:
That’s a great question and some good solutions. Public-private partnerships are definitely one piece of the puzzle, but ultimately to get there, you mentioned taxes; but ultimately, it’s user fees. We pay for our drinking water. We pay for our wastewater system. We pay freight costs on, whether when we buy our groceries at the store, there’s freight built in to the cost of moving that lettuce. We pay a gas tax. But that’s actually a user fee. Right. That tax is paying to use the road. And so, that’s ultimately where we will have to get. How do we raise those user fees in a manner that can help us maintain our system and build a system for tomorrow?

Public-private partnerships are a great way to leverage those user fees, but if there’s no money there, the private equity doesn’t frequently come unless they know that there’s something to offset their investment.

Smedley:
So when we look at this, and we talk about it, we then now have to figure out what’s failing? Because we’re never going to be able to be able to fix all of it. How are we going to use technology? We talk about the Internet of Things. And I know that you know that cities are never going to be able to do all of it. They’re going to have to do it in pieces.

How are we going to apply technology to help these communities to invest in the areas that they need to because sometimes they don’t have the personnel? They don’t have the resources. And if you’re going to put taxes and fees like that in smaller areas, how are we going to apply technology to help us get there?

Swallow:
I like to think that our communities can do it, it’s just going to take some time, because it took us some time to get here, so it’s going to take us time to dig out of this hole and technology is a key part of that. There’s so many different ways technology is impacting construction and the infrastructure process today. You could start with the better survey data that we can get today using LIDAR, where we understand better what the conditions are on our facilities. And then, you can put that into the 3D computer-aided design system. So 3D CAD, where you can actually accurately map, because we have the new LIDAR, you’re accurately mapping where all the infrastructure is, so you’re better able to know where it is, reduce the risk when you actually go into construction, make better decisions on what and how you might build a new facility, and/or simply maintain the facility.

Technology is enabling us to do asset management from inside our pipes, so we know specifically which piece, which segment of the pipe might need additional work, as opposed to having to look at, well this entire line was built in 1940, so we need to work on it. We can actually go in and say, “This is the piece that’s failing today. The piece next to it is starting to show signs of wear and tear, so we need to do a minor repair there.” That minor repair can help save us tons of money long term, if you’re able to fix before it becomes a problem.

So, technology is helping in that regard. It’s also helping us when you start to look at new projects are being built with integral sensors that are helping us understand, again, the integrity of the project, the integrity of that piece of infrastructure on an ongoing basis so that we can again, get in there and maintain it before it actually becomes a significant problem.

And then drones. Drones have been a fantastic way to help us monitor our bridges, for instance. They get better data and they have less of an impact on the traveling public than if you have to go out and monitor it with people.

Smedley:
Talk a little bit about that. Because one of the challenges we have right now is the staffing. The skilled labor to be able to look at LIDAR, to be able to fly the drones, to be within these construction companies or be able to help with the communities to be able to fix these things. So we say right now, technology can play a role, but we have to have the skilled labor that can actually help us achieve the goals that we have. How are we going to do that? Because we know in the construction world right now, we’re looking at, what, a 2.3 million job shortage. And everybody wants to go work at Uber, Google, Amazon, you name it, because that’s all sexy jobs right now. But we really need construction workers. We need people to go out there, what you just said, to look at these things where we need to fix them and get these jobs done and get these projects done.

Swallow:
You know, that’s so interesting, because so often we hear about how technology is going to take away the jobs. But in reality in this case, technology is creating jobs. And it’s not only creating jobs, it’s creating jobs that drive our economy forward and help our communities grow. So, it is, I think the challenge though on filling those jobs is selling those jobs, is communicating the need, is communicating the vast spectrum of work in our infrastructure area. I think when you talk about construction, not everybody really understands what that means. Or if you talk about civil engineering, what does that mean? What are the various types of jobs that you can do? And while you mentioned they might not be sexy, they might actually be very interesting to somebody who didn’t even realize that that was a possible opportunity for them.

Smedley:
And here’s the interesting thing. Do you think now, because people have this perception and it’s wrong, because there are some amazing jobs now. When you think, we talk about this on the construction site all the time. When you get into the cab of a crane, it’s pretty sophisticated these days and some of the things that you have to do. But is it an opportunity now for the Google’s of the world and the Amazon’s to partner with these great construction companies to tell the younger generation, these younger millennials, these generation Z’s, that they should work together. Amazon should be working with these very large construction companies, these small construction companies and say, “Look. we’re going to partner together to show you these great jobs because together we can rebuild our infrastructure.” So there’s great opportunities if they work together so that we can offer new opportunities and you don’t always have to go to Amazon or Google. There’s great jobs in some of these awesome construction firms who are building these new, incredibly sophisticated roads we’re talking about. Or new bridges we’re talking about. Or fixing these bridges.

Swallow:
You know, if we could figure out how to partner with Google and Amazon and some of those big companies it would be great.

Smedley:
We just solved it, right now.

Swallow:
Just like that. We figured it out.

Smedley:
That’s right. Right here on the radio show.

Swallow:
You know, but I think, as we move forward, they might be part of the solution, whether it’s selling the jobs or helping to further develop the technologies to make our systems even more efficient. Technology has been such a huge advancement. I talked to various infrastructure owners. And they can tell me they know with their newer infrastructure, they know exactly where they need to invest their money, if only they had additional funding to invest.

So we can talk about technology and we can talk about all of the various opportunities and it really is helping to advance our industry, knowing what we need to do and knowing where the work is most critically needed. But what we really need is, we need as a public, our communities, that 87% that say they support infrastructure, to help us tell our elected leaders they support infrastructure and to make it a priority.

Smedley:
So, it’s actually right now, so for all of us who sat on the sidelines right now, we need to elevate our voices to say, “We no longer can just say we’re satisfied with it,” because you know when some pipe breaks, you’re going to have some disgusting water coming through your house and you’re not going to be so happy anymore.

Swallow:
Right. And it’s funny because, I think we’ve accepted, a lot of the public has just sort of accepted the status quo. They’ve accepted that they get stuck in traffic at that intersection every single day. Or twice a week there’s a crash at that intersection. Or we’ve accepted the tens of thousands of fatalities on our roads every year. We’ve just sort of accepted it. And we need to take action. We need to start talking to our local leaders. We’re starting to see, that’s where the action is happening, at the state and local level. Over the last five years, over half of our states have increased their state fuel tax. And that’s because the public supports it. We’re starting to see changes in energy rates and water rates.

But what we haven’t really seen, where the mark really hasn’t moved is our federal government. Our federal government hasn’t really come to the table. We’ve seen bits and starts. And we’ve seen slight changes. And we’ve seen policy impacts. But what we really need to see is that funding. And I truly believe, if the public was to start sounding the alarm, if the public would start to just even periodically just check in and say, “Hey. Did you know this happened? Did you know this is currently happening on our roads? Did you know we could change this? All we need is a little extra funding. And we need you at the federal government to spend some time on this,” I think we would start seeing more significant change.

Smedley:
We’ve seen just recently when the public starts getting a little loud, lots of things happen. I’m not quite sure I like when that happens, but a lot of things happen here. But the interesting point of that that you’re making is, I don’t think that public actually makes the connection between the accidents. And you made a really good point… because we talk about distracted driving. And a lot of that happens when we’re using our phones, we’re talking, we’re eating. But a lot of the accidents happen because the roads have potholes or other things like that, but we’re reconfiguring roads now to make them better, but we found out that eliminates a lot of the distractions when we put roundabouts and things like that. So new road construction is helping with all that. And if we start improving those roads, like the infrastructure, that’s going to eliminate a lot of that distracted driving….

Swallow:
We do need to find a way to help the public understand how all of the infrastructure is connected and inner plays. One of the things I talk about when I’m on the road is, I talk about the fact that, if our water infrastructure is in poor condition, that impacts our transportation system. And people kind of look at me crazy. And I say, “Well every time there’s a water main break—and there’s water main breaks across the United States every single day—every time there’s a water main break, especially if it’s a significant break, traffic is re-routed. And people get stuck in traffic and people have to use different routes that they’re not normally accustomed to and it takes them longer to get to work.” And all of a sudden, light bulbs go on. Oh wow. And you talked about dirty water in our recreational facilities. If there’s a problem with our wastewater treatment system, all of a sudden that lake that you were planning to go play in tomorrow on the 4th of July, now you can’t go play in it, because the wastewater treatment systems failed. So our systems are very much interconnected.

I think the challenge though is, on that, is that the public needs to know they’re interconnected, but the public just needs to start talking. If 87% of the public already supports increased investment, it’s just a matter of getting them over the hump. Getting them to start saying, start sounding their voices, start raising their hand and saying, “I’m okay with ….” “I would like you to ….” “Please spend time on ….” Because the current condition is not acceptable and it’s hurting me. It’s hurting my family and it’s hurting my community.

Smedley:
And when we look at that, do we have enough community understanding of that? Are we doing enough as an industry to help them understand? I mean, does the buck start with us first to help them understand? Or is it still, “We haven’t done enough to help, starting with us as an industry,” so that the consuming public understands, they’re affected by this. Because we all live in our own little bubble. But do we have to elevate our voices as an industry to help the consuming public understand?

Swallow:
I do believe that we have a role in that. Where we’ve seen the states increase their fuel tax, and I can even talk about my home in Las Vegas, where we increased our local fuel tax, we actually indexed it. We were successful in that effort. That was a successful effort, because there was so much community engagement and community outreach to help the public understand how critically important it was to increase investment in our transportation system.

So some of it starts with us. Really selling our message. Really talking to the public. Reaching out to the public and saying, “We can fix this.” Well, letting them know that we understand that’s bad and truly how bad it is. Letting them know we can fix it, but we need their help. We can’t do it alone.

Smedley:
Realistically, how long is it going to take? How long is it going to take when we have such a failing grade right now? You said we’ve made improvements. We’re at a D+. How long is it truly going to take? Because one, you start fixing some, then you’ve got a degrading and deteriorating something else. How long is it really going to take to get us where we’re all saying, “Hey. You know what? We’re not grounded anymore. That D+ is improving.”

Swallow:
You know, I wish I could tell you that it would happen tomorrow or even in the next five years. I wish I could say that. But we didn’t get to this point in five or 10 years. Much of our infrastructure is over 50 years old. Some of it is over a century old. It took us a generation to get to this point. And as you mentioned, we’re facing shortages in the industry. Employee shortages in the industry and funding shortages. So ultimately, to get out of this is going to be a long process. It will take us a generation, but we can’t let that be the reason we don’t start today. It will take us even longer if we don’t start. We have to start investing now. And if we do, we will start to see improvements within the next few years.

Smedley:
Kristina, everyone is wondering if we can get the inside scoop? I kind of heard you say, “We’re not looking so good for the next one,” so are we going to look the same? Is it going to be a little bit better? I’m hoping it’s not going to be worse, because you know what, I think the belt’s coming out. Dad’s going to spank us with the belt. I know we can’t get spanked anymore, we’re not supposed to be spanked, but I’m thinking the belt is coming out if we’re going to get worse than a D+.

Swallow:
You know, the work on the next report card, the next report card is due to be released in 2021. So the work on that has only barely begun. As I did mention, we’ve seen states increase their state fuel tax, so we need to see what the impact of that is. Has that additional investment helped mitigate some of the concerns that we saw in the 2017 report card? Will there be an impact? Will we see a change? How has the federal actions that they’ve taken on levy safety and dam safety? Just categorizing and inventorying the locations of the levees. How has that had an impact? So we need to give it a little bit more time. It’s only been a little over a year since the 2017 report card was released before I could even start to consider or think about what that next grade would be.

Smedley:
Looking ahead right now, how do you feel that we’re doing right now? Are you feeling good about the progress we’ve made?

Swallow:
Every time we talk about infrastructure it’s a step forward, because it helps communicate to the public how critically important our infrastructure is. So in that regard, we’re doing good. We have a long way to go and we really need to figure out how to crack the nut of increased investment.

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By | 2018-07-19T22:52:11+00:00 7/17/2018|

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