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Why Your Bridge Needs a Good Bake Sale


By Robert Ikenberry

Americans are great innovators. We develop the coolest technological toys. From personal computers to smartphones, our inventions are groundbreaking and status-quo shattering.

We are also good at thinking big. We can do big. In really big ways. From transcontinental railroads to interstate highways, even to the moon. Give us a big, tough goal, and we're on it. To win.

But I think, as a society, we suffer a bit from collective ADHD. What's the latest fad, fashion trend, or political cause?

© / brandonhirtphoto

Designing and building new stuff is cool. Maintenance? Not so much.

Ok, now we've been there, done that. What's next?

The Unsexy Long Haul

Responsible stewardship, whether with the environment or our infrastructure, is much tougher for us. Preserving, protecting and, particularly, maintaining what we have isn’t sexy or exciting. And recently, it just isn't getting done.

The Rust Belt isn't just a section of the industrial Midwest; it's the entire country.

I've always said that infrastructure needs a good PR firm. People don't appreciate how much we depend on our bridges, sewers, electrical grid, dams and railroads.  Not to mention all the other critical support networks that allow us to travel freely, light and heat our homes, get food and goods made and to market.

Now, just PR is not enough. I believe it's more critical than that.

Mobilizing a Movement

Infrastructure needs a strong advocate. It needs a movement.

© / zennie

Understanding and appreciating how much we depend on railroads and other critical support networks is the first step toward protecting those assets.

It's not just a matter of public safety; it's about global competitiveness and quality of life. Our kids already expect a lower standard of living than we have. Now, are they not going to have clean water and dependable power, too?

How Third World do we have to get before this issue gets on our collective radar?

The anti-government sentiment in the country works against solving this problem, but there are some things—like roads and bridges and water and sewer lines—that we really need government to tend.

And it takes money. Serious money that no one seems to want to spend. Until, eventually, we’ll figure out that it's a whole lot cheaper to have a dependable power grid than for each of us to buy a generator.

Start Me Up

It's said that all politics is local. And it's clear that Washington doesn't have the ability to address this problem right now anyway.

© / Mark Bowden

They may not raise enough to recoat a bridge, but maybe they can fill a pothole or two.

So maybe we need to start small: Have a bake sale to fix neighborhood potholes. Hold a benefit concert to repaint the water tower.

When our town is nicer than the next one, people may notice and appreciate the pride our community has in its pristine reservoir and odorless treatment plant. Maybe the county will notice. Maybe we can shame some local politicians into rethinking their priorities. Maybe people will vote with their feet.

I don't have the answers, but I know my daughter deserves better. I know it's time to have the discussion. Let's make some noise.

Taking Steps

How? Here are some thoughts for starters.

Begin with some research. Contact local officials and engineers, and see what needs immediate attention. Determine the health of your local electrical grid, water supply, sewer system and treatment plant, storm drains, and so forth. If nobody knows, the first step will be to commission a study.

© / CDH_Design

Identify, inventory and prioritize local needs. Public safety and health projects should take priority.

Local companies may want to sponsor or seed a fundraiser, essentially getting naming rights for the push to improve your town’s infrastructure.  They get credit for being good corporate citizens, and the campaign gets a kickstart.

Safety and Education

Public health and safety should get priority treatment. Preventing floods, protecting water quality, preserving bridge capacity and averting collapses will all save money compared to dealing with damage or loss after a problem.

Some projects, like fixing leaky water mains, will pay for themselves in short order.

School facilities are one area where local parental involvement can have a huge influence. Just like local taxpayer pressure can restore music and art programs lost due to budget cuts, it can also build maintain and expand sports venues and educational facilities, as well as the infrastructure that underpins them.

Ultimately, a strong, balanced education for the next generation is probably the best infrastructure investment of all.

What are your thoughts for thinking big, on a local scale?


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Program/Project Management; Bridges; Construction; Infrastructure; Infrastructure; Locks and dams; Maintenance coating work; Maintenance programs; Mass transit; North America; Pipelines; Power; Railcars; Reservoir; Roads/Highways; Robert Ikenberry; Schools

Comment from Gene Kube, (1/7/2015, 4:04 PM)

I have found the the local communities do a very good job of protecting water supplies and dealing with sewage treatment plants. As far as the roads and bridges go, if the Federal and State governments spent the gas tax they collect only on the roads and bridges we wouldn't have to consider having bake sales. Unfortunately the gas tax revenue goes into the general fund and is spent on other "sexier" projects, (not unlike Congress "borrowing" from the Social Security tax revenue with the "promise to pay it back". Some in Congress are proposing hiking the gas tax. They say that we haven't had a gas tax increase in 2 decades. That may be so but there are millions more cars on the roads consuming millions more gallons of gas for which they are collecting millions more in revenue. The solution is to pass legislation that requires the gas tax revenue to be spent only on roads and bridges.

Comment from Billy Russell, (1/7/2015, 7:17 PM)

Well said and agreed Gene, That being said Tax Payers need to start asking why so much of our Dollars are given to countries that basically hate us while our infrastructure continues to be dilapidated in a lot of areas, The United States Government runs the Biggest Ponzi scheme with our Social Security now its ridiculous they have basically bankrupted every program they run , nothing they operate is in the Black , we are Borrowing money for entitlement programs we can not afford , people are on EBT cards and welfare for 12-15 years with NO intention of getting a job this can not continue in any business period , a bake sale , we have become pathetic as a nation if we have to resort to stuff like this , when will we get a Backbone and demand our Tax dollars put this nation back at the TOP we have been in decline long enough , stop talking nonsense use these PAC we have to tell the truth in DC and get the Damn job done Blowing smoke long enough WE KNOW what our infrastructure needs now get out of the office and come to the field the answer is not on your computer or in that Book Lets fix whats wrong , we started a PAC , NOW produce results make it happen .......

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (1/9/2015, 8:40 AM)

Gene, the Federal gas tax goes into the Highway Trust Fund, not the General Fund. In recent years, there have billions transferred from the General Fund to the Highway Fund. We are collecting LESS in gas taxes, not more (it peaked around 2006) - cars are getting better fuel economy, which means more miles of damage to the roads and less gallons to collect tax on (about 15% less). Finally, there has been significant inflation since the last time the gas tax was raised - dropping the value (what we can buy to build roads) by about 40%. Taken together, there's less then half the funding available as compared to 1993 - without considering how many more cars and trucks are on the road compared to 1993.

Comment from John Fauth, (1/9/2015, 8:45 AM)

The first rule of holes is, when you find yourself in one, stop digging. As it relates to transportation, stop building new infrastructure when you can't maintain what's already been built. But as Robert correctly points out, maintenance isn't sexy and politicians are less likely to approve funds to properly maintain a bridge with someone else's name on it. After all, its namesake is likely passed on and not up for re-election. New construction serves the interests of both politicians and citizens, whereas maintenance only serves the interests of citizens.

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