Spending on Shovel Worthy v. Shovel Ready Projects: An Engineer’s Outlook
The recent collapse of a 50-year-old bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the latest reminder about the worsening condition of our nation’s infrastructure and need for funding. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2021 national inventory, this bridge was one of nearly 44,000 other bridges nationwide rated in poor condition. Coincidentally, President Biden arrived in the city just hours after the bridge collapsed for a scheduled visit to discuss infrastructure spending.
November 15, 2021, marked an important date in the effort to restore and improve America’s crumbling infrastructure when President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law. The IIJA responds to urgent calls from industry, government, and citizens who recognize the critical need for increased spending on current and future infrastructure improvements.
America’s deteriorating bridges are just one example. According to a report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), motorists cross bridges rated in poor condition and classified as “structurally deficient” 167.5 million times a day. Looking back at the 10 deadliest U.S. bridge collapses in last 50 years, half were caused by structural deficiencies resulting in nearly 200 deaths.
But the need to invest in infrastructure applies to much more than bridges. In its 2021 Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) found that the nation’s infrastructure averaged a “C-” grade. From roads and railways to water and sewer pipelines, the nation’s infrastructure is nearing or has reached the end of its service life. If not maintained or replaced, one day this infrastructure will fail, causing disruptions, economic stresses, and loss of life and property.
In short, the U.S. has no lack of “shovel worthy” projects—crucial improvements that need immediate attention. But are these projects “shovel ready”? We have learned from previous stimulus spending that, in reality, infrastructure projects are rarely shovel ready. Even after a project is funded, it may take years before construction begins. What causes these delays?
Some of the biggest challenges to building infrastructure projects are unnecessary red tape in our bureaucratic system and complicated permitting processes. The regulatory burden has grown heavier over time—particularly for environmental assessment, which may take years in some cases. The time required simply to file the required paperwork takes thousands of hours and costs millions of dollars. And even after filing for the proper permits, developers are still at the mercy of a cumbersome process.
On average, it can take 5 to 10 years from identifying an infrastructure project to seeing it built. That is an incredibly long time to wait to repair essential infrastructure, especially in cases of defective or deficient structures that put life and property at risk. Likewise, once a structure fails, it is usually much more expensive to replace than it would have been to fix.
Cutting red tape and simplifying burdensome permitting processes will ensure efficient, timely completion of critical infrastructure projects. The good news is that the IIJA re-establishes the policy of One Federal Decision, which will streamline and expedite the federal environmental review processes for some infrastructure projects in a variety of ways. “Some experts estimate that One Federal Decision could shorten permit review processes from as much as 10 years down to two years,” reports Construction Dive.
While reducing the regulatory burden will be key, a good asset management program can also help owners maintain assets in proper working condition. Effective asset management can help decision-makers identify shovel worthy projects through a prioritization process to get them onto the shovel ready list.
The IIJA will bring a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure, but the industry’s needs do not stop at funding. To plan and prioritize infrastructure projects, the engineering industry, academia, and government need to work together to develop a plan that would yield measurable results, avoid futile projects, and ensure that vital projects get built promptly.
Rizwan Siddiqi, PE, is President & CEO of EBA Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at 240.547.1125, email@example.com, or on LinkedIn.