Resiliency in Infrastructure Part 3: Influencing Change

by Paul Schmitz, on April 07, 2021

Image of businessman drawing business plan. Computing conceptWhen it comes to building more resilient infrastructure, shifting perspectives and influencing change is not an easy task. Conventional construction methods may seem like the “tried and true” solution, but when disaster strikes and these vital structures require expensive and lengthy repairs, many will question if there is a better way.

Policy makers and other key stakeholders can be proactive in their planning and data collection to reduce the costs of environmental disruptions and avoid future damaging economical and societal impacts. This week we asked leading experts in the transportation industry to discuss considerations for the development of resilient infrastructure, including environmental parameters and risk assessment, design criteria and funding.

When it comes to designing infrastructure, do you consider environmental parameters in your materials, construction, maintenance, and rehab decision making processes? If so, what are your top considerations in these processes?

  • Jason Bird (FL Resilience Practice Leader - Jacobs Engineering)

Yes, environmental/ecological considerations are always factored in, not only for regulatory purposes, but also as environmental and social co-benefits from infrastructure projects adding additional project value to the community and alignment with alternative funding sources.

  • Kevan Stone (CEO & Executive Director - National Association of County Engineers)

Again, cost is the biggest component. While some states and localities may have statutory requirements for environmental impact, departments are going to spend within their budget. Tasked with "doing more with less", cost savings are always sought.

Environmental parameters are absolutely considered in the design of infrastructure and could be considered one of the most basic design criteria. Whether it be the temperature ranges in which the infrastructure will operate, water and moisture assumptions, or salinity or acidity of the water or soil in which the infrastructure operates, these all must be considered. We provide designs for a wide variety of infrastructure including geotechnical designs, railroad, bridges, roadways, dams, building and more. Temperature ranges and rainfall are likely the top considerations on a very long list.

I am an ecologist supporting engineers in infrastructure design, so I am definitely a proponent of considering environmental parameters. In coastal communities, sea level rise, inundation risk, anticipated changes in climate-driven precipitation and temperature patterns are some of the important considerations that may influence design and materials use.

How can we assess the risk of these environmental stressors and incorporate this into asset management?

  • Berry Still (Transportation SE Unit Business Leader - Mead & Hunt, Inc.)

Resiliency must be incorporated throughout the lifetime of a project - from the planning and design phases, through construction and management. The most important factor in incorporating environmental stressors into asset management is the understanding that environmental stressors are a moving target and the cycle of analyzing risk, establishing asset management guidelines surrounding this risk, and executing the plan needs to be revisited continuously throughout the program.

Coastal communities are becoming riskier as home values are losing steam in their total value appreciation. Real-estate companies are asking for discounts on bulk home orders due to the decreasing appreciation value from sea level rise. This indicates an increasingly negative sentiment for the overall market. Insurance risk can be mitigated through resilience projects, however.

  • Robin Seidel (Resiliency Architect Project Manager - Weston & Sampson)

Timeframe of when an asset is at risk compared to the lifespan of an asset. As an example, there is no reason to invest in resiliency improvements in a bridge that isn't exposed until 2070 and will be replaced in 2050. However, make sure that when the bridge is rebuilt, that it isn't built for climate during that time, but for the lifetime of the asset.

The need for the civil designer to look at site grading and stormwater management is a good opportunity to evaluate risks of environmental stressors during a conceptual stage of the project. At this point in the design process site survey and geotechnical data will help allow the designer to assess environmental stressors and resilient solutions regarding flood control, erosion control, and weakening of pavement subgrades as a risk assessment to changing environmental controls.

Does the panel have any views/suggestions on how to incorporate criteria relating to resiliency into to existing design guidance/requirements?

  • Berry Still (Transportation SE Unit Business Leader - Mead & Hunt, Inc.)

The most successful programs we have seen are from geographic regions that work collectively to establish policy regarding design criteria. A leading example of this is the Southeast Florida Climate Compact, where area municipalities are members of the Compact, and together develop criteria and guidelines (e.g., adopting unified sea level rise projections to be used for project planning), share resources/information, and have a unified path moving forward as a region. Each community is not trying to figure it out alone.

  • Jon Young (Executive Director - Hawaii Asphalt Paving Industry)

Use of a tool like Envision. Envision is a rating system and best practice resource to help you become successful in implementing sustainability into your infrastructure projects.

  • Tom Tietz (Executive Director – California Nevada Cement Association)

While there are several resiliency rating systems for the buildings market like Redi and the US Resiliency Council, it seems like there is more opportunity to shape how systems like these will be created and advocated for in the infrastructure realm. Getting involved in these types of efforts can be a long-term commitment.

As an industry, how might we influence policy makers and politicians to fund ‘designing and building for resilience’? 

  • Jason Bird (FL Resilience Practice Leader - Jacobs Engineering

By educating policy makers to the value of proactive investment focused on cost of ownership and planning for future, not the past. Through robust education campaigns we can help shift the focus from an overwhelming challenge that will affect the future leaders, to an issue that is facing them today requiring immediate intervention. By also framing the challenges, not as potential future challenges, but rather as a current threat that will be exacerbated with climate change.

ASCE has a resilience standard and FEMA's Brick Program requires those standards to get funding. Insurers and investors are also requiring ESG (Environment, Social and Corporate Governance).

Go interdisciplinary, and work with planners, scientists, etc. Then focus on longer-term and broader views - benefits become more obvious then.

More education and seminars would be helpful. Providing examples from other agencies that implement similar approaches. Most seminars I have attended so far focused on “flood ready” pavements. As a pavement management professional, I would be more interested to hear about "recession proof" pavements.

What needs to be done to bring us closer to a more resilient infrastructure? How do we shift the perspective that the lowest cost solution isn’t always the lowest cost in the end? First, we need to be proactive in collecting data so that the public is informed on the true cost of not implementing resilient designs. We also need to educate public agencies on proven, new methods that deliver better value and accelerate their acceptance. Finally, implementing leadership at the Federal level to mandate design life and performance criterion would be another big step in the right direction.

There are many aspects of infrastructure resiliency which need to be addressed moving forward, and resiliency is beginning to receive more of the attention needed to improve outcomes. Tensar developed a new webinar, "Understanding and Improving Infrastructure Resilience to Extreme Events."  While this is only one aspect of the overall problem, it is one of the most critical, and can improve our understanding of the overall problem. Join us for this on-demand webinar where we will  look at principles for developing improved solutions.

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We hope this series has sparked conversations within your organization about more resilient infrastructure. If you have questions or would like to continue this conversation, reach out to me, Paul Schmitz, anytime.