Emergency, Emergency! Bechtel Chief Pens Urgent P3 call

Emergency, Emergency! Bechtel Chief Pens Urgent P3 Call

by BRENDAN BECHTEL, President & COO, Bechtel Group | Jan 8, 2016

America must renew its infrastructure to avoid economic decline. As Americans, we know that our basic infrastructure badly fails to meet the demands of the 21st century as we daily encounter crumbling bridges, pot-holed highways, outdated airports, and other critical public facilities across the country. Indeed, the American Society of Civil Engineers grades U.S. infrastructure a D+. The recently passed [FAST Act, which became law Dec. 4] is a good start, yet a great deal more urgency is needed.

When I was working summer jobs during school, I trained as an emergency medical technician and volunteered briefly with my local fire department. One of the key skills any emergency responder first learns is triage: when you arrive on the scene of an emergency with multiple casualties, you must first sort and prioritize all the patients based on their individual needs, then deliver their treatment in order of the most critical life-saving issues first, then deal with less-urgent injuries.  

Today, America’s agencies and companies tasked with sustaining our aging infrastructure are in emergency triage mode. We are trying to do the best for as many patients as we can with the limited support and resources available, but we can’t help feeling like our chances of long-term success are slipping through our fingers. How many of us have sat in traffic due to the growing reliance on “emergency road repairs” just to keep our roads open? The backlog of emergency infrastructure repairs is beginning to overwhelm our nation’s ability to efficiently make the life-extending repairs needed.

In both emergency medicine and infrastructure, older patients require extra care. The Interstate Highway System was born more than 50 years ago. New York's George Washington Bridge opened to traffic in 1931. Most of America’s rail system was built more than a century ago. Although these venerable assets have performed admirably for many years, they’re not just old; they’re outdated. 

From the technology used to design them to the techniques and materials used to build them, many of our critical public structures and facilities are inefficient, expensive to maintain and lacking in long-term resiliency.

Jobs + Sustainability

In addition to fixing what’s broken, there are other reasons for America to make smart infrastructure investments. One is putting thousands of people to work on projects that will support economic growth and national competitiveness. Another is environmental sustainability.

Today’s building materials include advanced aluminum, steel and alloys that are stronger, lighter and easier to recycle than older materials, and have less carbon impact. When combined with world-class sustainable engineering and construction methods, these new materials perform better, last longer and have less environmental impact than materials and methods used in the past. In addition, building materials and information technology are melding to produce “intelligent” facilities that can interact with people and machines to improve quality of life, productivity, and safety.

A bridge is no longer a slab of concrete and iron. It is an interactive link in our bricks-and-clicks network
— Brendan Bechtel

A world-class approach to infrastructure will produce integrated systems that sense the environment, analyze Big Data and act autonomously and instantly to increase efficiency and minimize risk. Imagine a dam that not only senses rapidly rising water levels and dispatches flood control commands that divert upstream water flow but also adjusts traffic signals to reroute vehicles away from flood zones and triggers early-dismissal advisories for schools in high-risk areas. The result: smooth traffic flow, less pollution, reduced stress on bridges and roads and — most important — enhanced safety for everyone.

The world around us is transitioning from the age of industrial infrastructure to the age of smart infrastructure. A bridge is no longer a slab of concrete and iron. It is an interactive link in our bricks-and-clicks infrastructure network that communicates and responds. Whether it is smart bridges or smart electricity grids, many benefits of sustainable development are available today. 

However, large-scale investment is required — investment that will provide a compelling return in the form of resilient and “smart” infrastructure, a cleaner environment, better quality of life and, yes, sustainable American jobs.

Today the state of transportation, water distribution and other infrastructure in the United States is significantly below average for developed countries. Anyone who travels abroad has seen the enormous investments in modern infrastructure being made by our trading partners and competitors. We are falling further behind the global standard with each day of inaction, as we console ourselves that we “will deal with it in next year’s budget,” or even more depressingly, “in the next election cycle.”

the time to act is now

Despite global economic headwinds, we must act urgently to invest in our nation’s long-term competitiveness. I will be the first to acknowledge the scarcity of funds in Washington or in state capitals to catalyze this investment. But federal leadership and state-by-state commitment to rebuilding the nation’s critical infrastructure has to be one of America’s top priorities for the sake of future generations who will otherwise inherit a crumbling, unsafe, environmentally unfriendly, productivity-choking system, several generations old.

Innovative delivery options are available that harness private sector innovation. We need to urgently improve policy frameworks that unlock the full potential of Public-Private Partnership (P3) approaches and encourage investment in smart infrastructure. Canada has created a robust, efficient P3 market with broad competitive participation, improved project outcomes and modern public infrastructure. The P3 approach developed and used today by Infrastructure Ontario is a world-class model and should be considered and adapted for use here in the U.S. 

Today, some forward-thinking states with historically divergent P3 approaches are creating new regional coalitions to collaborate on shared P3 frameworks that supplement federal gas tax-based underwriting for critically needed infrastructure. And Congress has a bipartisan proposal to create an Infrastructure Investment Bank with a non-governmental oversight board to catalyze and underwrite desperately needed projects around the country. For maximum impact, P3 Partnerships should be part of a larger national plan to create a coordinated port, power, transportation and water network.

Chronic under-investment has led to closed and dangerous bridges, congested roads and highways, inadequate port capacity and poor rail safety and performance. The time has come for a change

Smart investment — that leverages private sector innovation and technology — will save money later, stimulate our economy through the creation of good-paying American jobs and make our country more competitive.


Based in San Francisco, the author is the fifth-generation president of global engineering, construction and project management giant Bechtel Group Inc.

This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Google+ Google+