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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014
Commentary

Our aging infrastructure challenge

Published:

BY RICK FERREIRA

Special to The Tampa Tribune

To most people, a recent reorganization at Tampa City Hall may seem like just another bureaucratic overhaul that won’t have any direct impact on the city or the people who call it home. But to those of us who spend our days focusing on the long-term health of roads, bridges and the other critical infrastructure that support daily life, this change carries the promise of a clear vision for the future.

The mayor’s plan to realign the city’s various public works and utilities functions — everything from repairing potholes and sidewalks to constructing and replacing water and sewer systems — will place a greater emphasis on the future of roads, drainage and utilities, reflecting a clear understanding of the need to develop quality infrastructure that will serve the public for decades to come.

All over Florida, cities and communities are facing the very real challenge of aging infrastructure. The news is filled with recent examples showing why investments in smart, modern engineering are so needed: a water main break that shut down North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota for a full day; another water main break that led to a potentially deadly sinkhole in Miami.

Just last week, Tampa experienced two water main breaks that snarled traffic at busy intersections. City officials said the age of the pipes was not a factor, but one of the pipes is 60 years old, while the other is 50.

To Floridians, the challenge of infrastructure upkeep has meant some good news and some bad.

On one hand, Florida has been commended by national watchdog groups for its excellent and well-kept roads and bridges. Although about 25 percent of bridges in America are rated deficient or obsolete, this is the case for one-third fewer Florida bridges. And although about 65 percent of America’s roads are in “less than good” condition, just 4 percent of Florida roads are considered to be in that state of disrepair. Beyond roads and bridges, however, the news isn’t as good.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) releases a report card on the state of America’s infrastructure. In the latest released report, Florida was issued a mediocre C- grade based on a variety of infrastructure factors. Worse, this grade was lower than Florida’s assessment four years earlier.

Between 2008 and 2012, Florida’s energy infrastructure grade dropped from a D+ to a D; flood control went from a C to a D+; stormwater fell from a C+ to a C; and water and sewer dropped from a B- to a C.

Why? Because population growth, time and budget constraints take a heavy toll on shared resources.

The answer to solving difficult infrastructure problems lies in the innovative and intelligent application of engineering and science technology. For example, innovations in processes with science fiction-sounding names — things like stormwater harvesting, aquifer recovery, desalinization, septic tank conversion and basin management — all show tremendous promise to reduce environmental impacts and, in some cases, the costs of infrastructure upkeep, as well as to spread limited resources more efficiently.

The changes in the National Flood Insurance Program brought about by the Biggert-Waters Act and later modified by the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act further increase the demand for accurate, detailed flood risk maps — at a time when most communities are less able to afford this type of an investment than in the past.

Our engineers and scientists have brought a high degree of automation to the development of flood risk maps and the watershed models behind them through custom-built GIS-based tools and data. This automation has substantially lowered costs and improved accuracy while accommodating much greater detail. By doing so, we are able to help local governments and citizens avoid vulnerability and protect human safety, roadways, properties, and utilities.

Likewise, in St. Johns, Polk, Pinellas counties and elsewhere, we have developed projects that make better use of our limited water supplies and improve water quality in our waterways. Harvesting of agriculture runoff so that farmers can reapply it to irrigation and using the reductions in groundwater consumption for the more appropriate end use of potable water is another example of how my colleagues are helping to solve some of our most pressing infrastructure needs. These solutions represent cost-effective means to improve water quality and usage throughout the state.

Florida is projected to become the third-most populous state in the nation this year, heightening the importance of investing in smart, adaptable infrastructure solutions.

By doing so, our state has the opportunity to raise all of its infrastructure grades to where its roads and bridges are today: leading the nation in reliable, cost-efficient systems that will stand the test of time.

Rick Ferreira is president and CEO of Jones Edmunds, an engineering firm with offices in Tampa and throughout Florida.

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