Infrastructure Crisis? What Are You Maniacs Talking About?
Part 1 in a series
The 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card, One stop on my Infrastructure Journey
by Mark K. Boyd, PhD, PE, M.ASCE
Chair 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card Committee
After well over a year of outstanding work by the committee and Texas Section staff/leadership, the 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card (IRC) is finally out with the following headline:
Good news! Texas’ GPA rose to a “C” from the 2017 grade of C-.
The Report Card is all about setting the right priorities and targets for smart infrastructure investment. Getting the Report Card out every 4 years is an important process which establishes continuity of a commonly understood letter grade. The concept has achieved a firm foothold in the consciousness of the state and nation. The influence of the ASCE Report Card has grown steadily since it was first published nationally in 1998. It has even reached into Hollywood scripts as fictional President Kirkman, played by Kiefer Sutherland (that’s Donald’s son, for us old guys), mentioned the ASCE Report Card in several Oval Office scenes during Season 3 of “Designated Survivor” (see Netflix).
Texas’ GPA rose even though 12 categories were evaluated, 4 more than 2017 which included 2 categories never before assessed in this state. Most of the 4 additions dragged the GPA down. Texas infrastructure condition and state of preparedness has improved and its GPA would be even higher had we chosen not to adopt 4 additional systems to assess. Keep in mind the national GPA was D+ in 2017. This year’s unprecedented scope included support for grades in drinking water, wastewater, parks & recreation (new Texas category), energy, bridges, highways & roads, transit, levees (new Texas category), dams, solid waste, flood risk mitigation (previously known as Flood Control), and aviation. I invite you to read the Report Card available through the Texas Section web site.
As I started crafting this article, I thought back and realized my infrastructure journey truly started long ago. I’ll share a personal story or two with you and hopefully tie it into relevance with our ongoing Report Card mission. That will be followed by a discussion of the critical importance of infrastructure investment, the 2020 experience of this award-winning committee (2020 Texas ASCE President’s Special Recognition Award) and an urgent call to action for all Texas Civil Engineers.
I tried, here and there, to discuss the infrastructure issue in a way you may not have seen before, putting it into worldwide perspective. I hope I succeeded. I’d love to know what you think ([email protected]).
The Many Stops on My Infrastructure Journey: An Infrastructure Road Less Traveled
I posed a crucial question in the Report Card preamble:
“Where would our economy and quality of life be without 20th century investments in the interstate highway system, water works, and other elements of critical infrastructure?”
I’ve lived the answer. I didn’t grow up in the United States (mostly). While I have memories from living in many developing nations, some of my most vivid memories of unthinkably deficient infrastructure come from my time in Bolivia from 1978 to 1980, where I did my last couple of years of high school.
Despite taking residence in a middleclass neighborhood my house was just blocks away from an open sewer. With no wastewater treatment plant, the untreated waters of the Río Choqueyapu followed its drainage path destined to become irrigation to fruit and vegetable fields serving the open markets in La Paz.
- With food service from the sewer to the table, pretreating lettuce leaves with iodine was routine for my family.
- Boiled water notice was not a thing, as no notice was necessary. Bacterial, viral and parasitic microorganisms were endemic to water supply.
- Bottled water was a luxury.
Deficient transportation infrastructure? Yep, I experienced that too! I flew into the town of Riberalta accompanying my Dad on a USAID mission trip. Riberalta was a small city located deep in the Bolivian Amazon basin. Without roads, the only way to get there was by air or river. We flew on the Bolivian military’s passenger service of “Transporte Aereo Militar” (TAM). Until that point, TAM was just a bad joke amongst my friends, as we referred to their passenger service as “Transporte al Otro Mundo” (that’s transport to the other world, the play on the acronym doesn’t quite work in English). There I was on a TAM flight, with my dear Dad, Dr. Claude C. Boyd. The pilot strolled back and moved us to different seats to balance us out with the large load of raw meat in the back of the plane. He said the plane was feeling a bit off (“desequilibrado”). With his copilot at the controls, he settled into an empty seat to regale us with aviation stories about the bravery and skill of Bolivian pilots. “Despues de todo”, he said, “son los mejores pilotos del mundo por necesidad!” (“After all, they are the best pilots in the world, by necessity!”). Most of his stories had happy endings of pilots skillfully saving the day during emergencies on their poorly maintained aging airplanes flying over the high Andes and jungles. He saved the worst for last, with a story he ended by looking forlornly out the window. “I lost some good friends down there in that thick jungle”, he said. “The jungle will not give you up. They went down and vanished without a trace, just like they’ll never find us if we go down. I better get back to the flight deck…have a nice ride the rest of the way.”
I think that Bolivian Pilot just wanted to see the blood drain from my 17 year-old face.
Arriving safely in Riberalta, wanting to kiss the ground, we were picked up by a USAID mission car and driver. It was a bustling place, but I saw no other cars or trucks in town that day. My Dad explained that it was very expensive and difficult to import cars and trucks by air or river, so most people got around town on bicycles and motorcycles. There were very few paved roads. I’m pretty sure there were Civil Engineers somewhere as I saw lots of construction going on. I was amazed to see rebar being carried across town unloaded from the river dock and carried to construction sites, back and forth, in small bundles tied to motorcycles. They looked like Knights wielding lances.
Back in La Paz months later, the night of my senior prom, it rained very heavily. The 6-lane avenue between the lower and upper areas of the city collapsed under a massive mudslide. Sound like California? Yes, except this was in the middle of a nation’s capitol. City roads were incredibly challenging. One major artery road within the city was a cobble stone street winding its way in switchbacks up steep inclines. A very light rain made it as slick as ice. It was one way only when it was wet. No signage was necessary, as down was it. Up wasn’t about to happen no matter the type of 4×4 you drove.
Everywhere I lived, transportation tragedies were a seasonal occurrence that came with heavy rains. The regular carnage was caused from overloaded buses, competing with overloaded trucks, rolling on mountain roads going from farm to market, or mine to market, rural “highways”, and city streets. Poor and tired drivers wanting to get home, carried destitute road weary passengers to their deaths every year. I came upon one such accident, when a flat bed truck loaded with empty glass soft drink bottles turned over to avoid a young kid on a bicycle, tragically crossing the road in front of the truck. The driver tried to steer clear. He didn’t save the kid. Many on the truck were killed or severely injured. The truck driver had taken on paying passengers, women and children mostly, that were riding on top of the cargo. I was there minutes after it happened. I don’t need to describe the scene.
So, what does all this have to do with Texas infrastructure?
Well, obviously in Texas we don’t have towns that are so isolated, motorcycles don’t carry rebar to construction sites, city roads don’t routinely collapse, passengers don’t normally ride on cargo trucks, and we don’t need superhero pilots to overcome an aviation infrastructure system. WE should appreciate what we do have. There is a contrasting message I bring about Bolivia today. While many problems still persist, you might be interested in how they are solving one bad problem in the capital city of La Paz.
La Paz, as the highest capital city in the world, is renowned these days as a beautiful shining City in the clouds. It is by far the most visually spectacular City I lived in. Since I stopped living there, Bolivia has done its share of infrastructure investment in this city unique geographic challenges which include an elevation range of 13,313 feet at the airport on the high plane above, down to 10,000 or so feet in some of the lower residential areas. My house and high school were at around 11,500 feet (take that Denver, mile high city…. La Paz is over two miles high).
La Paz is investing in the most spectacular and ambitious public aerial cable transportation system in the world. Just take a look at the montage of pictures I’ve provided (with thanks to my family in Bolivia for taking some of these pictures). It is not one cable stretched from peak to base as you might imagine a tourist attraction cable car or lift taking skiers up the mountain. Cable cars on their red, yellow and green lines are crossing the city at a capacity of up to 3000 people per hour. The first phase cost is about $250 million, but costs will eventually exceed $1 Billion as the system’s phased plans continue with ridership success supporting system growth. By all accounts the investment is well worth it. The system alleviates congestion for the 200,000 people that travel every day between La Paz and El Alto (a large city high above La Paz on the high plain). This cable transportation system takes tens of thousands of commuters off the dangerous steep, unstable city streets, out of overloaded buses, and into the much safer sky, no doubt saving hundreds of lives per year.
So, you might ask again, what does this have to do with Texas? Texas Civil Engineers need to be reminded that bold solutions with targeted infrastructure investment can make a huge difference in people’s everyday lives.
As they say in Bolivia, “Grandes males, grandes remedios” (Large problems need large solutions).
Texas has huge problems. Bold ambitious solutions are the answer. Maybe there’s no need for transportation systems in the sky, but we may dismiss some options as unrealistic that can perhaps be recast as bold. What about high-speed rail or hyperloop? What about innovative wastewater reuse strategies in arid areas? There is so much that could be considered once we get everyone on board to THINK BIG!
What Are You Maniacs Talking About?
What I’ve come to believe is that our attitude about Texas infrastructure should mirror the lyrics of that old Joe Walsh song….you know the one…. “ I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do! Life’s been good to me so far.”
If we complain, let’s be careful not to complain too loudly.
A few years ago a Malawi comedian named Daliso Chaponda was on Britain’s Got Talent with what I found to be a smart and hilarious short monologue (you can see it on Youtube). The best comedy is deeply rooted in truth. He relates that arriving in England ten years earlier, he heard everyone complaining about the “economic crisis“. Here are his insightful one-liners.
- “I’m from Africa”, he says, “What are you maniacs talking about?
- Where is UNICEF?
- I have not seen one Save the UK Concert! Where is Bono?
- Where are the fish & chips being dropped out of airplanes? ”
Simon Cowell and the all-British crowd behind him roared with laughter. They were not offended. They knew he was speaking the truth.
Infrastructure Crisis? What are you maniacs talking about?
It Is A Crisis. We’re Not Maniacs
Even from our fortunate and resource rich perspective, I do believe we have a crisis on our hands, and we’ve been living and working within it for a while. That’s not because I think Texas infrastructure is failing. It is a crisis because our infrastructure in many areas will inevitably fail without proper attention. Our GPA was a C with the energy sector bringing up the average with a Report Card best of B+. We wrote that Texas is a national and world energy leader. On the other hand, Texas is far from being a leader in other areas, with low grades for wastewater (D), highways & roads (D+), dams (D+), and levees (D).
UPDATE (March 1, 2021):
The Big Elephant in The Room, The Energy Grade
Now, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room. As I mentioned, the energy grade of “B+” was the highest grade issued. We are starting to experience significant traffic and inquiry concerning the apparent contradiction of the grade to the tragic impacts from Winter Storm Uri and Viola. Oil & gas infrastructure was considered in the full report card together with electricity and alternative energies. The complete energy chapter, now available but unfortunately not out when the grades were first announced, the primary focus was on electrical transmission infrastructure and distribution systems, not generation. Our initial findings indicate the transition and distribution systems worked well during this crisis. It is critical to identify the root cause of failures and determine which could have been avoided with improved processes and which may have been the result of not adhering to industry standard practices. A new ASCE Texas Section task committee formed by President Sean Merrell and led by Texas IRC subcommittee member Geoffrey Roberts PE, M. ASCE, plans to share its complete findings later this year and intends to provide law makers with comprehensive policy recommendations for Energy infrastructure.
Interested in the new task committee? Contact [email protected].
Now, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room. As I mentioned, the Energy Grade of B+ was the highest grade issued. We are starting to experience significant traffic and inquiry concerning the apparent contradiction of the grade to the tragic impacts from Winter Storm Uri and Viola. Oil & gas infrastructure was considered in the full report card together with electricity and alternative energies. The complete energy chapter, now available but unfortunately not out when the grades were first announced, the primary focus was on electrical transmission infrastructure and distribution systems, not generation. Our initial findings indicate the transition and distribution systems worked well during this crisis. It is critical to identify the root cause of failures and determine which could have been avoided with improved processes and which may have been the result of not adhering to industry standard practices. A new ASCE Texas Section task committee formed by President Sean Merrell and led by TxIRC subcommittee member Geoffrey Roberts, PE, M. ASCE, plans to share its complete findings later this year and intends to provide law makers with comprehensive policy recommendations for Energy infrastructure.
Spending or Investment? My Journey Continued….
A long time after my years growing up in Latin America, by then a PE, I attended the ASCE Washington Legislative Fly-In. I have one distinct memory of a conversation with a junior congressional staffer. I used the phrase “infrastructure investment” in my talking points. He scolded me, rebuffing my use of the word “investment”. He explained that Congressional leadership did not consider infrastructure spending to be an “investment.” He went on to say infrastructure spending was a politically explosive, high impact budget expenditure leading to increased deficit spending. He implied benefits could not be reasonably presented in terms of return on investment or ROI. He was getting all that from his boss, the congressional representative. I did not challenge him; I wish I had, because an ROI for the greater good is easy to define.
The savings in maintenance of deteriorating, outdated infrastructure is an easy factor to point to, and a significant part of the equation. Infrastructure investment modernizes critical systems, lowers long-term operations and maintenance expenses. Investing in infrastructure pays for itself several times over.
“Reliable, modern infrastructure is the underpinning of economic growth across communities.”
— ASCE’s 2021 Failure to Act Report
A few years after that Washington Fly-in trip, my infrastructure journey continued as a member of the Texas 2017 IRC Water Subcommittee. Just a couple of years later I jumped at the opportunity when our then President Susan Roth and Executive Director Lindsay O’Leary asked if I might be interested in being the Chair of the 2021 Texas IRC Committee. It didn’t take much arm twisting as I was eager to become part of the solution. After all, my kids will live their lives here.
Neglecting infrastructure will leave us mired in static 20th Century status quo, or worse we’ll find our infrastructure in the same state as some developing nations.
There is no doubt in my mind that investment in Texas infrastructure now will result in substantial quality of life improvement with environmental benefits, and an economy that will continue the prosperity Texas has enjoyed in recent years.
According to ASCE’s 2021 Failure to Act report, American households will spend $3300 a year due to current infrastructure deficiencies.
Sorry to break the news to that congressional aid, but contrary to standard investing in the stock market, smart infrastructure investing carries with it a robust guarantee of future results.
Infrastructure spending is firmly tied to improvements in quality of life, environmental resilience, and economic prosperity.
Thank you for sticking with me on my journey so far. Now that I’ve set the stage, it’s time to tell you about this wonderful committee, as my journey continues.
We Took On 2020!
The 2021 Texas IRC Committee first convened January 2020 at ASCE Texas Section’s Austin Headquarters. We started with a group of 30 or so volunteers, all experienced ASCE leaders with deep expertise, wisdom, and insight about Texas infrastructure condition, needs and knowledge of Texas’ preparedness. Not one of us peered into the near future to see what 2020 had in store! I don’t recall coronavirus being mentioned, even during sidebar conversations. In a foreshadowing of things to come, many participated by phone on that sunny winter day in Austin, from other parts of the state like El Paso, Odessa, and Houston. Participating remotely had its drawbacks, but we all saw the value of involving willing volunteer experts unable to fit a personal appearance into their schedules. Little did we know that attending meetings remotely would soon become routine. From the beginning, there was palpable enthusiasm for the work ahead and the mission of the Report Card. We grew to 55 volunteers, with 11 subcommittees covering all these infrastructure categories so relevant to our state. Members included engineers from energy think tanks, university engineering academia, port authorities, major Texas airports, small and large Texas cities, and a wide array of experts in private consulting.
Through quarantined virtual meetings and attention to their regular jobs, the Committee found a way to deftly uphold all duties, meet draft deadlines, and religiously attend committee meetings. With the advent of global pandemic, oil glut crisis, invasive murder hornets, tragic social unrest, and everything else 2020 foisted upon us, we soon became accustomed to new aspects of everyday conversation. We heard and saw it all through our virtual, audio-visual kaleidoscope and cacophony of malfunctioning video images, headsets, and microphones. Our videos were on only when we had good band width, weren’t having a bad hair day, or we had bothered to get dressed. How big are those murder hornets? Are you and yours safe and healthy? Thank you for your patience during these unprecedented times. Be prepared to adjust with us if our plans to open our organization or business change. Can we buy that online? When will the vaccine be coming? The Amazon driver did not even ring the doorbell! My face mask order will take how long? Do you have curb side pickup? Are you an essential worker? Must be a slow connection, too many people online in the neighborhood. Working at home? Can you hear me now? Unmute your mic. What’s a Google Doc? Mute your mic, your dog is barking. That’s not my dog. Oh, I can do that as an organizer? Your lips are moving, unmute your mic. Zoom, Webex, Go to Meeting, Microsoft Teams, Skype…….wait, let me share this document. All I see is your cluttered desktop! Can I share both my screens?
We somehow kept from losing our minds! Well…not really, but the committee stayed on track!
I challenged each subcommittee to avoid speculation as it related to the effect extraordinary 2020 conditions may have on infrastructure funding, planning, and construction. Will some of their analysis and forward-thinking statements be challenged in some future hindsight context? The future is more uncertain than ever. But what should never be questioned is the committee’s dedication to a professional work ethic in this process. They gave this important mission the serious attention it deserved.
This superb committee gave us their best game.
Everyone faced their own personal pandemic challenges but still made sure to uphold other personal and professional responsibilities along the way. They have described the current condition of our infrastructure, predicted funding needs, identified our state of preparedness and resilience, and attempted to anticipate how the current extraordinary global setting affected their analysis and predictions. They are strong leaders in their communities, building a better quality of life across the street and around the world—leveraging smart infrastructure maintenance and design to do so.
In fond and respectful memory of Rusty Gibson PE, M. ASCE
Late November 2020 was a poignant time for the committee and the Texas Section. By unanimous consent of the entire committee, section and global leadership, the 2021 Report Card was dedicated to Dams Subcommittee Chair Russel “Rusty” Gibson PE who passed away suddenly just before the Thanksgiving Holiday. Like a few others, Rusty pulled double duty as a member of the Levees Subcommittee. A perennial ASCE leader, you may read more about Rusty and his service to ASCE on the dedication page of the Report Card. I enjoyed and admired Rusty’s approach during our many collaborative subcommittee calls. He was a respectful, kind, experienced, knowledgeable, down-to-earth, and thoughtful force driving all of us. Long before his passing, Rusty was representing the best of us. As a person and volunteer leader, he reflected the mix of work ethic, human, and professional qualities of this committee and so many ASCE members I have known over the years. We were all deeply saddened by his untimely passing. Rusty was working on his committee responsibilities until the end, as his insightful contributions to the Dams chapter were being opened and addressed out of our email in boxes, even as we mourned his death.
Rusty inspired us to refocus with strengthened resolve to prepare the best possible final Report Card as a fitting memorial to his good work in support of ASCE and the communities we serve.
Through it all, the committee pivoted and adapted, immersed in the times and events that affected everything and everyone. They demonstrated the flexibility of thought and action that we’d all like to expect from engineers, scientists, and government leaders. They showed no fear, producing their analysis even while facing obvious substantial uncertainty. They walked the walk.
My sincere thanks go out to every contributor for their hard work and perseverance, which ultimately made this year’s Texas IRC the best ever! With close to 70 persons involved after counting section leadership and guidance from Global Infrastructure initiatives group, there are just too many to mention by name. Leaving anyone out would be unfair. The report just would not have been the same without the involvement of every person. Some chose to remain anonymous so are not included in the information provided about the committee by the Section. They all did a fantastic job!
This Report Card will forever be special because of the shared challenges we all faced together during 2020.
It is necessary for the state with the 9th largest economy in the world to step up with bold solutions for its most serious infrastructure problems.
A Call To Action:
Let’s Light This Candle!
Circling back to my unique perspective of life in the developing world, in Texas most of us have indoor plumbing, our toilets still flush into controlled systems, and we actually have fishable and swimmable streams and lakes, we have an outstanding parks system, we still have a safe drinking water supply, and institutional open dumps are a thing of the past. Texas has a strong energy infrastructure to modernize, push and even fund many aspects of growth and improvements. We are blessed to have talented honest public servants at TxDOT, the TCEQ, the Texas Water Development Board, the Texas Railroad commission and other agencies all striving to make things better for everyone.
Look sympathetically outside our borders. Don’t complain. Just get to work! We have plenty of good foundation to build on in Texas!
Forged by 2020 fire, the Texas 2021 Infrastructure Report Card Committee produced the best and most ambitious Texas report ever. It is the product of thousands of focused volunteer hours by the committee, section leadership, ASCE global staff, and agency reviewers.
Let’s not let this extraordinary effort go to waste!
We’ll start our 2021 Texas IRC advocacy at the upcoming Texas Legislative Virtual Drive-in, but let’s not lose momentum after that. Everyone in the Texas Section should become familiar with the Report Card and follow this committee’s thoughtful lead to use the information in supportive advocacy of adaptive policies, plans, and funding toward meaningful progress of an ever improving 21st Century infrastructure, quality of life, and environmental sustainability for all Texans.
Let’s set our sights on a GPA of “B-“!
I would love for the next committee chair to be reporting a much higher GPA a few years from now. Eliminating all the “D” grades would do the trick. Let’s do it water, dam, levee and bridge engineers!!
Join in the Texas ASCE and global ASCE initiatives! Boldly move forward on your own infrastructure journey, advocating solutions that will make the difference.
Make this part of regular conversations with your colleagues, friends, family, and neighbors. After all, you are a member of the Texas ASCE. You are the experts, so who best to advocate for the needed improvements?
Let’s light this candle, fund this thing, and get to work!
Read the full 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card here.
Part 2 in the series: The Worst Grades of Texas: Levees and Wastewater