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Infrastructure mishaps capture the headlines, but the conversation can’t just follow the news cycle

By Josh Weiss

Headlines about a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh capture attention, especially when it happens immediately before a visit by the president of the United States.

While thankfully no one was killed in the collapse, I think it safe to say anyone in the construction industry would attest that bridge collapses such as these aren’t necessarily a surprise. It is surprising why it hasn’t served as a much-needed wake-up call.

Newspapers nationwide ran stories about the number of structurally deficient bridges in their jurisdiction. While this may have captured some headlines, they soon faded as other news of the day rose to the surface.

 

We shouldn’t fall for that temptation

Infrastructure failures are avoidable circumstances

It’s only natural to want to turn our attention to other topics. If we do so, we risk a worse outcome if we don’t take seriously the need to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure.

In other words, we need to act now to ensure infrastructure failures remain more of an anomaly than a commonplace occurrence.

In my last piece, I highlighted the importance of technology, especially related to infrastructure and the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The opportunity before us is to make technology-enabled informed decisions using timelier and more relevant and local information.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card revealed a C- grade for our infrastructure. It’s hardly a surprise; bridges and roads are crumbling everywhere we look, and highways are no longer adequate for how we move.

 

It’s about condition, not sequence

Smart infrastructure upkeep is about condition-based priorities, not budget-driven timing.

There are more than four million miles of roads in the country and more than 610,000 bridges. According to the 2022 Bridge Report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), more than a third of all bridges (36%) “need major repair work or should be replaced,” and it could take 30 years to repair all of the nation’s structurally deficient bridges at the current pace.

Upgrading the entirety of our nation’s infrastructure is a tall order. Replacing all structurally deficient bridges alone is estimated to cost more than $58 billion, and it could cost $260 billion to replace every bridge that needs repair.

The infrastructure in need of repair isn’t limited to isolated stretches of road. Consider that roughly one out of three bridges (30%) are on interstate highways; motorists cross structurally deficient structures 167.5 million times a day.

 

Credible improvements require solid baselines

When we talk about using technology in the construction industry, it’s often about improving the jobsite, including allowing workers to do more and improving safety. We must harness the pre-emptive power of technology and build roads smartly to make our infrastructure last longer and better serve our needs.

Of the four million miles of road in the country, about 164,000 miles are part of the National Highway System; the rest includes state highways and local roads. Much of that mileage requires manual inspections, a costly and time-consuming process.

What if we could take an arduous process and make it simpler and more reliable?

Consider the idea of using technology to monitor the condition of infrastructure. Adding a solution like sensors to automatically inspect infrastructure, collect data, and report potential problems before they rise to the level of a catastrophe will keep travelers and the public safe.

Using digital technology throughout the project lengthens the asset’s lifespan. Using reality capture technology to document an asset throughout its construction creates a “digital twin” of the asset, which can be used as a solid baseline for predictive maintenance.

 

It’s about here and now.

According to The Civil Quarterly, funding is starting to flow to road and bridge projects. However, Dodge estimates just 10% of the total will be distributed during 2022, with more to follow in 2023-25.

Infrastructure maintenance — compared to new builds — benefits from being handled locally and selectively rather than centrally and comprehensively.

It’s easy to take infrastructure for granted when it serves our needs without a problem. Real vision necessitates we focus on solving problems before they crop up, and overhauling the nation’s infrastructure requires an ongoing conversation and commitment at the local, state and federal level and from the private sector.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves and tackle the challenges that face us before they worsen to a point where we can no longer address them.

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