Federal strategies, local can-do
New reports are folding the technical aspects of public works into the management aspects in an attempt to help the community address the future with confidence. Can a fractured industry respond?
Pat Choate and Susan Walter started it. In 1981, they published “America in Ruins,” the now-classic treatise on the deteriorating state of the country’s infrastructure. It was a watershed moment, coming as it did at the beginning of what would be the “Feel Good” years of the Reagan presidency.
Two years later, a highway bridge in Mianus, Conn., collapsed, killing a number of motorists. That was followed by assorted bridge and road collapses, the burst water mains that both flooded downtown Chicago and caused a killer sinkhole in Midtown Atlanta and the destruction of a stretch of supposedly quake-proof California freeway during the 1992 Northridge earthquake. Suddenly, America’s infrastructure was not just falling down; it was actually killing people when it did.
The publication of “America in Ruins” was followed in quick succession by a series of reports that cited progressively bad news. It culminated in the publication of “Living Within Constraints: An Emerging Vision for High Performance Public Works,” the concluding report of the Federal Infrastructure Strategy (FIS) program. In a nutshell, that report declared that America could no longer go on slapping up public works projects willynilly just because a) someone wanted one, or b) money existed to fund one.
Phrases like “performance measurement processes,” budget sensitive financing,” “performance based measures” and “peer-reviewed science” became as much a part of the public works lexicon as hot mix asphalt and soil consolidation.
The FIS program was a three-year effort begun in response to a Clinton Administration budget initiative and a subsequent House Report that accompanied the 1991 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act. It was to provide a followup to studies by the National Council on Public Works Improvement, a creation of the 1984 Public Works Improvement Act and the federal Technology Assessment and Congressional Budget offices.
According to the report, the FIS program was aimed at “developing principles for improving the performance and efficiency of federal infrastructure investments, including those ultimately made at state and local levels . . . designed to facilitate the sharing of policy research through a three-tiered process of intergovernmental consultation, in-depth inquiries and technical studies, . . . [and encouraging] the active participation of the various federal, state and local public works agencies, infrastructure providers, academic and related research organizations and advocacy, professional and user groups in the coordination of information, strategies and resources.”
Three questions, deemed essential to the development of a national public works strategy, were to be addressed:
* What new government-wide or multi-agency federal infrastructure policies and principles should be developed?
* What issues should these policies and principles address? and
* Can federal agencies use these principles to work more closely together and with both other levels of government and the private sector to improve the performance of the national infrastructure?
Roadblocks, the report acknowledges, abound. First, when money is tight, public works maintenance suffers. Second, spending for public works projects often bears the “pork barrel” label. Third, budget constraints at all levels of government can put even modest programs and projects out of reach. Fourth, liability and regulatory and contracting concerns keep the public works field from tapping the vast network of technological advances that should be available to it. Fifth, state and federal regulations and mandates skew local budgets and play havoc with local priorities. And, finally, environmental statutes have made it difficult to make critical decisions.
But the one barrier over which the field itself has total control is its makeup. And that may be the toughest problem to overcome.
“When you’re looking at barriers, you have to begin with the structure of the industry, especially at the city and county level,” says Dave Schulz, the founder of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “You’ve got thousands of infrastructure owners and operators who deal with thousands of engineers and consultants who deal with tens of thousands of contractors. If you want to develop an innovative technology in the automobile industry, you’re basically dealing with three major domestic firms and a handful of firms worldwide. If you want to develop a major innovation in infrastructure, you’ve got to figure out how to get it through the entire industry,” he says. “Then, if there’s a federal aid component, you’ve got the federal government looking over your shoulder. Having all those costconscious government people involved may seem propitious for innovation, but it actually makes things very difficult.”
All these roadblocks directly affect what may be the most over-looked aspect of the modern public works industry — technology.
Because money is tight — and the public distrustful of even the most innocuous project — technology is fast becoming the most critical item in the public works tool box.
Schulz knows whereof he speaks when he discusses both technology and the barriers to innovation. He has pursued what he calls “a 21st Century career in a 20th Century body,” serving at various times as a county transportation planner, a deputy public works director, a budget director, a parks director and an elected county executive.
Having played from both sides of the net, he is in a unique position to assess the industry. And he is cautiously optimistic.
For years, it was assumed that the feds were the only ones capable of both conducting and funding public works research.
Now, a massive effort is underway to create some kind of consensus about the future of public works technology, and, for the first time, this effort is calling to the table diverse elements of the industry that have previously been separated into specific public works categories — industry, association and organization, research lab and, of course, federal, state or — not and — local government.
A CRITICAL ROLE
Currently, what might be called a national public works technology research agenda does not exist. The process, in fact, is fairly reactive, with innovations occurring in a “problem-solution” format.
“The typical agency R&D focus is on agency mission-related infrastructure components,” explains the FIS report, which was published in 1995 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Institute for Water Resources (IWR). “Scientists at most federal laboratories do not have a clear understanding of the concept of public works infrastructure, nor do they possess an understanding that their mission-related research products could be applied to improve the performance of the public works community.”
This has profound implications for the state and local government public works communities. Few scientists engage in infrastructure-related research because the payoff is so uncertain, subject, as it is, to lengthy delays prompted by testing, evaluation and marketing.
NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE MILESTONES
* 1981 “America in Ruins: Beyond the Public Works Pork Barrel,” Choate and Walters, charged that lack of maintenance was seriously endangering the ability of the nation’s infrastructure to continue meeting essential needs.
* 1983 The failure of the Mianus, Conn., highway bridge focuses renewed attention on the physical condition of the nation’s infrastructure.
* 1983 “Public Works Infrastructure: Policy Considerations for the 1980s” published by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
* 1984 “Hard Choices: A Report on the Increasing Gap Between America’s Infrastructure Needs and Our Ability To Pay for Them,” presented to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress by the University of Colorado at Boulder.
* 1984 Public Works Improvement Act of 1984 (P.L. 98-501) creates the National Council on Public Works Improvement (NCPWI) to assess the state of America’s infrastructure.
* 1986 Water Resources Development Act represents fundamental reform of cost-sharing principles for federal water projects.
* 1987 “The Nation’s Public Works,” series of reports published by the NCPWI.
* 1988 “Fragile Foundations: A Report on America’s Public Works” published by the NCPWI, concludes that the nation’s infrastructure is barely adequate to fulfill current requirements and insufficient for future economic growth.
* 1989 A series of articles by David Aschauer in the Journal of Monetary Economic triggers a debate among economists and policymakers regarding the relationship between economic productivity and public investment in infrastructure.
* 1990 “New Directions for the Nation’s Public Works” published by the CBO.
* 1990 “Rebuilding the Foundations: A Special Report on State and Local Public Works Financing and Management” published by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).
* 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act enacted.
* 1991 “Delivering the Goods — Public Works Technologies, Management and Financing” published by the OTA.
* 1991 “How Spending for Infrastructure and Other Public Investment Affects the Economy” published by the CBO.
* 1992 “Paying for Highways, Airways and Waterways: How Can Users Be Charged?” published by the CBO.
* 1993 “High Performance Public Works: A New Infrastructure Investment Strategy for America” published by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
* 1994 “Principles for Federal Infrastructure Investments” issued as Executive Order No. 12893.
Source: Living Within Constraints: An Emerging Vision for High Performance Public Works
Nevertheless, the development of new technologies and methods of what the FIS calls “innovation transfer” is critical to the future of the industry. “Why is this important?” Howard Rosen asks. “Count the number of bridges.”
Rosen, head of the American Public Works Association’s (APWA) Public Works Historical Society, calls the situation a “crisis.” Indeed, the word peppers his conversation. “The crisis is that the economic/political context of public works has changed dramatically,” he says. “There has been a complete turnaround in the willingness of the population to support investment and expenditure. At the same time, the physical problems are getting worse. It’s those two curves intersecting that causes the most concern for the industry.”
The problem is, according to Rosen, there is no one voice speaking for the American public works community. Instead, a myriad of associations, organizations and academicians are pursuing independent agendas. That, however, is changing. The APWA, at the request of the U.S. Department of Commerce, recently sponsored a gathering to discuss creation and implementation of a system of national construction goals. APWA invited AT&T, HNTB, Parsons, Bechtel and a number of other construction and engineering concerns, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, representatives of various research communities and a consortium of associations, including the National Association of Counties, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Consulting Engineers Council, to participate.
But getting the main players together is one thing; creating an atmosphere of cooperation that has not heretofore existed is another.
This is particularly true of the various governmental units involved. And that is where the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) comes in.
INFRASTRUCTURE TECHNOLOGY PRIORITIES
Maintenance of Buildings Systems
Construction/Demolition Worksite Safety
Construction/Demolition Scheduling and Estimating
HVAC and Plumbing
Maintenance and Repair of Pavements
Drainage of Highways and Roadways
Asphalt Performance for Pavements
Inspection and Management of Pavements
Maintenance and Repair of Bridges
Roadway Markings and Signs
Roadway Snow Removal and De-Icing
Road Crew Safety
Management of Residential Collection
Source Reduction by Composting
Separate Technologies in Materials Recovery
Separation of Waste in Residential Collection
Source Reduction of Litter
Equipment Maintenance for Residential Collection
Materials Recovery by Paper Recycling
Waste Management for RCRA Compliance
POWER AND ENERGY
Leak Detection for Underground Storage Tanks
Leak Treatment for Underground Storage Tanks
Leak Detection for Utility Pipelines
Above-ground Alternatives for Underground Storage Tanks
Repair of Utility Pipelines
Clean Air Act Compliance
Efficiency of Small Generators
Waste Separation in WTE Plants
Repair and Rehabilitation of Collection Systems
Leak Detection in Collection Systems
Standards and Regulations for Treatment Systems
Management of Worker Health and Safety
Maintenance and Repair of Treatment Systems
Land Applications for Sludge Disposal
Composting/Recycling of Sludge
Monitoring of Treatment Systems
NPDES Compliance for Stormwater
Leak Detection and Repair of Transmission Lines
SDWA Compliance for Potable Water
Stormwater Flood Management
Stormwater Runoff Quality
Flood Damage Reduction
Groundwater Monitoring and Detection
Groundwater Well Drilling and Maintenance
Recycling and Reuse of Hazardous Waste
Worker Safety in Materials Handling
Alternatives to Landfill Disposal
Management and Regulations
Residential Hazardous Waste
Spills/Site Cleanup Technologies
Groundwater Pollution Monitoring/Containment
Hazard Identification of Materials
(Priorities are listed high to low by infrastructure system)
Source: Federal Infrastructure R&D: Technology Transfer Series, Civil Engineering Research Foundation for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources.
As part of Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review, ACIR was charged with developing “appropriate benchmarks and performance measures to improve the understanding of public service delivery effectiveness . . . to reinforce the outcome focus in intergovernmental collaboration . . . to rethink and redesign more effective intergovernmental program solutions . . . [and to develop] national economic and social benchmarks [to] give all levels of government a clear framework for policy choice and priority setting [with] a focus on citizen customers.”
It was a big job. The result, consequently, was a big report called “Intergovernmental Accountability: The Potential for Outcome-Oriented Performance Management To Improve Intergovernmental Delivery of Public Works Programs.”
The report, the result of a partnership between the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and the University of Akron’s Department of Public Administration and Urban Studies, represents the first major attempt to quantify and qualify nationwide benchmarking practices for public works infrastructure. It was the natural followup to the FIS.
Benchmarks, according to the report, are just one of many performance measurement indicators. A growing number of public works departments across the country are instituting or refining their benchmarks in order to “better communicate agency’s performance records.”
For the report, NAPA surveyed a number of state, city, county and special district governments involved in benchmarking for infrastructure-related activities.
Respondents noted that their benchmarks are “revised over time, are tied to a performance monitoring, measurement and reporting system and are engaging agency leadership.”
In a best-case scenario, the report would lead to the development of national benchmarking standards that would accompany federally funded infrastructure projects.
But resistance to the idea of benchmarking and alternative management techniques remains intense. “A lot of these people are back in the 1950s,” says IWR Director Kyle Schilling. “They are technical people who are disengaged from the human kinds of interactive aspects of their jobs. That’s why many upper level public works jobs are moving into the political sphere. We have people focusing on planning for service delivery taking a design standards approach. They don’t understand that technology to produce services is part of a package.”
So, still, it all comes back to technology. “Technology is a critical component,” says Bruce McDowell, ACIR’s director of government policy research and the report’s author. “Obviously, we’re going to need better technology to reach these performance goals, especially in the present economic times.”
McDowell sees a “continuing premium on technologies that transform the existing systems” as being a natural outcome of this kind of performance-oriented planning.
Still, the question is not how important technology is but how the public works industry can help refocus the R&D processes. That is where the matter of public works technology ownership comes into play. Both the FIS and the ACIR reports emphasize the necessity for partnerships between the public works community and the private sector, as well as partnerships between all levels of government.
But neither specifically addresses who should be responsible for R&D. “The FIS is silent on who owns public works technology,” says Billings, Mont., Public Works Director Ken Haag, president of the APWA.
“From a public works standpoint, it appears that public works technology should be part of the public domain since so much of it is developed through federal tax dollars. If it were, it would be available to anyone who needed it. And I’ve got some real questions about whether that is happening right now.”
The federal government, Haag points out, is not used to being in this marketplace. “In the past,” he says, “most of the R&D and laboratory work has been focused on the defense market in which the federal government was the ultimate purchaser. In this particular market, the federal government is the owner of the technology but not necessarily the purchaser of the final product.”
Haag sees “vast changes” ahead for the public works industry, most of which will be tied to technological innovation. “Public works per se is really a very young institution,” he says. “Much of the massive public works construction is a thing of the past. We’re going to be seeing a lot more `people-sized’ facilities. We’re already seeing the development of planned communities that are responsible for their own infrastructure maintenance. It allows private industry in and creates a new role for the public works department.
Future R&D, as Haag sees it, will contribute to a sort of “miniaturization” of public works — huge waste-water treatment plants giving way to microbes that can be installed residence-by-residence as part of a treatment package. “I can envision customizing pavement surfaces,” he says, “so that you’ll have a different surface at intersections than on residential or commercial streets.”
To get there, Haag says, the R&D community is going to have to become more innovative in selling its products to the public works community. “There’s got to be more communication so that the public works people know what is available,” he says. “In turn, that helps the public works community affect the research.”
Rosen agrees. “Often, the technical aspects of a project don’t get considered until it’s time to implement the policy,” he says. “But if the policy-makers had been more aware of the technical aspects, the policies might have been different.”
This kind of advance thinking will help the private sector help the public sector, Haag believes.
But while that kind of talk frightens public works professionals with visions of “privatization” and job loss, Haag argues that it is merely a matter of semantics. “Almost everyone is saying `privatization’ when what they mean is public/private partnerships,” he says. “The public works community is not getting out of the business. It’s been my experience that even those most afraid of the concept of privatization are really receptive to different and better ways of providing services to their constituents. There is, naturally, a reluctance to have a solution forced on you.”
Still, Bill Bowmaster argues that the private sector is the key to the industry’s future. “The kinds of technology we’re talking about are going to come from the private sector,” says Bowmaster, the director of the technology transfer center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. “My personal opinion is there is no reason for the state of Nebraska — or the city of Atlanta — to own that kind of technology and development capability. So they need to get on the bandwagon early. Most of the major R&D developments going on right now are private. Cities need to find out who’s doing what and make partnering arrangements for specific applications. These people doing the development are all anxious to find someone who’s willing to try something out.”
For example, Bowmaster recently headed up a one-day workshop sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration’s Region 7 on rural applications for intelligent highway systems. The idea for the workshop was the result of a severe winter blizzard that paralyzed commercial traffic along I-80. “It was a direct result of the development of pavement sensors that track weather conditions,” he says. “I was thinking that if those truckers had been able to get to a rest stop that had computerized weather tracking systems, they might have known to avoid that stretch of interstate.”
T2 centers, by their very nature (they are academic, despite their obvious government connections) rely more heavily on private sector research contributions than do city or county public works departments. But the philosophy is useful. “I don’t like to talk about `demonstration projects,’ because that connotes boondoggles and pork barrel projects,” Bowmaster says. “But I see a lot more public/private partnering or cooperation on demo-type projects. I hear a lot of talk about more and more cooperation to get products into use faster.”
That, however, is going to require commitment — not just lip service — from politicians both local and national. “They are going to have to be forward-thinking and not just immediate bottom line-oriented,” Bowmaster says. “If that happens, there’s a great opportunity for moving this stuff along.”
“There’s a lot of promise in the natural inventiveness of engineers,” says Northwestern’s Schulz.
Innovation is alive and well, he says, pointing to intelligent transportation, development of high-performance concrete and steel and creation of vastly improved composites.
“There’s a researcher named Norman Fawley who is working with a series of fiberglass mats laid down with epoxy resin,” he says. “He believes he can achieve a structural strength in half-an-inch of this material that would be equivalent to a rigid overlay. You could build a bridge out of composite somewhere off-site and bring it in and drop it into place.
“Of course,” Schulz notes, “that can also be done with concrete and steel, but it’s cumbersome and expensive.”
Schulz also points to intelligent transportation technologies as evidence that innovation is possible. “There’s a lot of innovation on the transportation side,” he says. “It’s within our grasp to do amazing things.”
To do them, however, is going to require a change in management philosophy, Schulz says, thus bringing the entire future of public works argument full circle. “There are a number of ways to make this work,” he says. “You can talk about procurement reform, lifecycle costing, tort reform, regenerating the American enthusiasm for infrastructure,” he says. “But the biggest hurdle is that there is a lack of a single credible, reliable source of information on technology.”
But, through the efforts of APWA, the research community, local government organizations and national engineering associations, that, too, is changing. “We are part of a loose consortium of people who are beginning to talk about development of knowledge-based systems,” Schulz says. “Today, engineers have access to technical information, but the access process is cumbersome. In the future, engineers designing and building infrastructure will have an electronic button on their computers that will allow access to a logical, efficient search engine. They will be able to pull up the latest information on cast-in-place concrete, for example, and the specs they need. We are not a universally informed group of people, so we need an infrastructure knowledge system. Information is the answer. I hate to say it, but computers are the answer. They are not a panacea, but they can create better management.”
And that, in the final analysis, is the crux of the matter. The technicians and the managers may not have that much in common. Indeed, they may not even like each other.