Public Safety, National Security: America’s 21st-Century Infrastructure Agenda

09/05/2007 |

Here's a top 10 list of what New York and many other cities have experienced or can expect to see in the years ahead in terms of building and city infrastructure

America's aging cities and critical infrastructure are in need of repair and replacement after years of neglect and deferred maintenance. Much of the current built environment, above and below ground, was designed and completed over 50 years ago. The maintenance bill is now overdue.

The August 2007 collapse of the I-35 Bridge in Minnesota focused on an issue that many older cities and communities have long grappled with: Finding the political capital and public officials who will champion funding for repair, replacement, and maintenance of critical infrastructure has always been a challenge.

This issue goes far beyond structurally unsound bridges and the huge sums needed to fix them. It concerns commitment on the part of elected leaders and public officials charged with ensuring public safety, homeland security, and environmental policies that protect, not endanger, public health.

Funding infrastructure maintenance and repairs doesn't provide good photo ops, ribbon cuttings, naming rights, or local press. But, the public rightfully expects that taxes and tolls will cover ongoing maintenance and upgrades, not pork barrel projects like the Alaskan bridge to nowhere, or the Florida highway extension in a district that didn't want it.

America's mayors, governors, Congress, and the next U.S. President face an important leadership challenge of rebuilding America's infrastructure.

The Aging of American Infrastructure
In the last several years, New York City, representative of other aging cities, has faced many hazardous and often fatal scenarios that have brought daily life and commerce to a halt for days or weeks at a time. Whether caused by accidents, sheer neglect, malfeasance, or, potentially, terrorism, the net result is the same: loss of life, businesses, jobs, revenues, transportation, and utilities, along with potential hazardous materials in the air and the inability to get to one's home because it's in a police-sanctioned frozen zone.

Infrastructure protection is a Homeland Security issue. Here is a top 10 list of what New York, and many other cities, have experienced or can expect to see in the years ahead:

  1. Underground steam pipe eruptions. During the summer of 2007, an 83-year-old steam pipe in Midtown Manhattan burst suddenly, causing death and disruption to businesses, residences, and subway lines for days. Older pipe sections nearby are over 123 years old and have yet to be replaced.
  2. Electrical blackouts. The Northeast national power grid reportedly lacks redundancy and flexibility. High summer demands for power result in cascading failures and brownouts, as in California. The 2003 blackout, which affected several states and parts of Canada, was caused by a failure outside local jurisdiction.
  3. Subway stops. Torrential rains have closed New York subway lines during the summer of 2007 because the pumps that keep tunnels dry for the third rail are quickly overwhelmed. Old wiring is flammable; a 2005 fire almost shut one line down for 5 years. Switching failures lead to derailments and collisions.
  4. Water main breaks. Sinkholes aren't only for rural areas with abandoned coal mines. Heavy vehicular traffic over old cast iron pipes causes vibration, cracks, pressure, rust, leaks, and eventual street cave-ins and floods.
  5. Gas main explosions. In New York City, gas main explosions have occurred during repairs. When a backhoe hit a pipe in error in 1999 (and 1989), it resulted in major fires, power outages, loss of transit service, and death.
  6. Exploding manhole covers. Whether due to exposure to the elements or rodents, electrical insulation eventually smolders, releasing gas, smoke, and pressure. The build-up can cause manholes to explode into the air from urban sidewalks. Five heavy manholes popped up near NYC's busy Port Authority Terminal in September 2004. With the electrical grid at capacity in many urban areas, and with dense new development and increased power demands in the works, this situation is not easily solved. Con Edison (the main NYC electric utility provider) has the equivalent of a 50-year cable replacement cycle.
  7. Bridge collapses. The August 2007 I-35 Bridge collapse raised public awareness about structural integrity of bridges across the United States and the severe need for repair, maintenance, and replacement. That's the good news. The bad news is that, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card 2005, 27 percent of America's bridges are structurally deficient or structurally obsolete, with $1.6 trillion needed over a 5-year period to bring the nation's infrastructure to good condition.
  8. Overloaded sewer systems. In most cities, wastewater goes to treatment plants. Open, green spaces in urban areas decrease with rising land values and urban development, while rooftops, parking lots, and roads, all impervious to water, increase. After moderate or heavy rains, drainage and sewer systems become overloaded, increasing the risk of flooding and potentially causing an onrush from storm drains that overwhelms systems, sending untreated raw sewage into rivers and waterways. Ongoing dense and high-rise development exacerbates the problem, making the cost of improving sewer infrastructure prohibitive in most communities. Green roofs, which replace impervious traditional roofs with roof gardens, can substantially reduce stormwater runoff and lessen the burden on aging wastewater systems. This approach has been successful in Chicago and other cities.
  9. Cornice crashes. The freeze-thaw cycle takes a toll on aging buildings more than a few stories high and can cause heavy stone cornices to fall on unsuspecting pedestrians. After a falling cornice killed a student in 1979, New York City enacted Local Law 10, calling for regular façade inspections every 5 years of buildings higher than 6 stories.
  10. Raining bricks. Many commercial and residential buildings built during New York's 1960s construction boom were subject to less stringent building, fire, egress, and safety codes than are in force today. Some curtainwall sheathing these buildings may be only one brick thick, using small steel straps to attach the curtainwall to the structural steel frame. Typically, the steel straps are good for about 30 years before they begin to rust and need replacement. After bricks fell from a vintage 1960s Manhattan residential building, NYC mandated inspections.

The Benefits of Rebuilding America's Infrastructure
Reliable, well-planned, and well-maintained infrastructure creates safe, secure, livable, and desirable communities. The building industry is a major economic engine and source of jobs in the United States and for the global economy. Rebuilding America's cities and infrastructure creates new jobs, requiring highly trained professionals, as well as moderately skilled and unskilled laborers that strengthen local, regional, and national economies.

Rebuilding America's infrastructure keeps people working, by ensuring the public they can travel to work on a train, plane, bridge, or in a car or tunnel in relative safety. Infrastructure that is designed and built according to the latest codes and standards enhances public safety, because new technology, materials, and appropriate security and surveillance measures will also be addressed.

Architect of the Capitol
A related issue that has arisen during the summer of 2007 concerns the stewardship of the nation's icon of democracy: the U.S. Capitol. The Architect of the Capitol, a position appointed by the President, should be a licensed architect, not an engineer, construction manager, lobbyist, or executive. The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is the protector of over 2 centuries' worth of artistic and architectural heritage, the infrastructure of democracy.

According to Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress, a Congressional Selection Commission, comprised of leaders of both the House and Senate, submitted a list of three AOC candidates to the White House during the summer of 2007. President Bush must nominate an individual, who does not have to be one of the three recommended by Congress, for confirmation by the Senate.

As of Sept. 4, 2007, the names of the nominees have not been released, and insiders believe that at least one of the nominees is not a licensed architect. Two August 2007 letters from the American Institute of Architects' EVP/CEO and AIA Board of Directors seeking further information have gone unanswered by the White House.

In July 2007, Architect Alan M. Hantman, FAIA, the former Architect of the Capitol, received a Distinguished Service Award from the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) Intl. Hantman served the U.S. Congress and the public as a Presidential appointee and is an active member of BOMA and AIA. He served with distinction as Architect of the Capitol for a full 10-year term.

A Challenge to the Next U.S. President: Rebuild America's Infrastructure
The 2008 presidential campaign public policies are being developed for the coming primary season. This is the time to place rebuilding American infrastructure on the table as an important issue to be discussed by the presidential candidates of both major political parties.

Realistically, the momentum for new infrastructure initiatives will not take shape until after Jan. 20, 2009, when the next U.S. President takes the oath of office; however, the nominees of both political parties will be selected by next summer and will be refining their agendas and campaign themes for the debates and November 2008 general election. One candidate has already begun discussing the tasks required between the Election Day 2008 and the January 2009 Inauguration.

America's mayor and governors, along with the building industry, have a major stake in development of America's Infrastructure Agenda. Professional organizations and media representing every facet of the building industry, from architects, engineers, designers, construction and labor groups, to manufacturers, building owners, facility managers, and public agencies, should demand attention to this important issue in the months ahead, in national, state, and local media covering the presidential campaigns.

America's 21st-Century Infrastructure Agenda
The following is a working Infrastructure Agenda to begin a national conversation with the presidential candidates and the next U.S. President. It is by no means complete and is not intended to suggest federal solutions are needed for every problem or program. Think of it as a Blueprint for America, to borrow a phrase from AIA's 150th Anniversary Initiative, and a framework for national, bipartisan collaboration.

  1. Commit to rebuilding American cities and aging urban infrastructure at federal, state, municipal, and county levels. Address all areas of infrastructure: water, electricity, fuel, gas; telephone, data, and communication networks; transportation; and the buildings and facilities that house these critical functions. Engage all public and elected officials to support this national agenda.
  2. Embrace sustainability to minimize environmental impact and reduce global warming by 2030. It is time for America to recapture its role as a global leader on environmental policy and inspire other developing nations to implement sound practices.
  3. Protect American critical infrastructure from ports and dams to nuclear plants, electrical grids, airports, and cyber networks. Protect critical assets based on threats, population, and potential catastrophic impact if destroyed or severely damaged. Appoint respected, seasoned emergency management, security, and law enforcement leaders who will restore professionalism to these critical tasks.
  4. Authorize federal funding and grants to cities and localities that seek to repair, maintain, or replace structurally deficient, damaged, or aging bridges, utilities, and infrastructure.
  5. Encourage clean, safe, convenient public transportation systems and programs to reduce energy consumption and car dependency. Provide tools, information, and funding for sustainability, security, and emergency management communications to passengers and personnel. Buses, trains, trams, light rail systems, and Amtrak need federal and local support.
  6. Establish long-range infrastructure goals, including what can be achieved from 2009 to 2012, (the next presidential term), as well as at 10-, 15-, and 20-year benchmarks, leading to 2030.
  7. Earn the public trust by restoring ethics to government contracting. Appoint talented people based on qualifications, not cronyism, religious, or political beliefs. Demand accountability, performance, and quality on public and private government contracting. Encourage public-private partnerships that create private sector jobs in local economies. Give women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses a fair shake in getting contracts. Hold state and local agencies receiving federal funding to similar performance standards.
  8. Define urban infrastructure broadly to include rebuilding aging public schools, emergency response facilities, and trauma medical centers designed to treat mass casualties after a terrorist attack, horrific accident, natural disaster, or pandemic.
  9. Appoint an Infrastructure Czar whose tasks could include coordinating infrastructure priorities across other agencies; federal funding with Congress, governors, and mayors; and ensuring that money goes to cities that need it, especially after catastrophic events. This appointee should have professional and management experience in the building industry with large projects, and a working knowledge of Congress and Washington, D.C. Consider this role as a Cabinet-level position.
  10. Appoint a licensed architect to be the Architect of the Capitol. The current and the next U.S. President should commit to appointing a licensed architect as Architect of the Capitol. The Attorney General has traditionally been an attorney, not a paralegal. The Surgeon General has traditionally been a physician, not a hospital administrator. The Architect of the Capitol has traditionally been an architect for over 200 years, not a construction manager.

Building Industry Resources

Architect of the Capitol


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