After the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, Barry LePatner warned that it would only be a matter of time before another bridge suffered the same fate. In the wake of the May Skagit River Bridge collapse in Washington State, he explains why the nation’s leaders must act now to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
New York, NY (June 2013)—In 2007 when the I-35W Bridge collapsed in Minneapolis killing 13 people and injuring 145, infrastructure expert Barry LePatner warned that it would happen again. This past March on ABC’s 20\20 Deborah Roberts asked Barry LePatner if he thought his repeated warnings that our nation’s bridges were in danger of widespread collapse were being ignored. He answered, “Unfortunately, I fear that I will be repeatedly saying to journalists such as yourself, ‘I told you so’ and that is something I fear greatly.” Unfortunately and to his great dismay, LePatner has been proven right once again.
In May, Washington State’s Skagit River I-5 Bridge, responsible for carrying an average of 71,000 vehicles a day, collapsed after a semi-truck with an over-sized load reportedly hit the Bridge causing one of its spans to fall into the Skagit River.
Much like the I-35W Bridge and similar to nearly 8,000 bridges that are both structurally deficient and fracture critical and which were identified by LePatner in his book, Too Big To Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward, (www.TooBigToFall.com), with the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge, we are again reminded how our nation has failed to address its aging and deteriorating bridges that imperil the traveling public. It is yet another indicator, notes LePatner, that steps must be taken immediately to begin repairing the nation’s aging and dilapidated infrastructure.
“Not surprisingly, the Skagit River Bridge was fracture critical,” says LePatner, creator of www.SaveOurBridges.com. “That means the bridge’s design lacked the redundancy, which is the additional structural support to hold up the bridge if a single component failed. So when the truck clipped the bridge, the span collapsed into the water below.
“Thankfully, no one was killed, but this absolutely must be a wakeup call to our nation’s leaders that something must be done to correct the dire infrastructure problems endangering the traveling public from coast to coast. Saying there is no money to fund these repairs is just an excuse and is simply not true.”
U.S. bridges can be repaired without impacting the deficit, insists LePatner. Repairing the 2,000 bridges shown on the SaveOurBridges.com website that are both structurally deficient and fracture-critical and carry more than 25,000 vehicles a day (i.e., those most in danger of collapse) would cost an estimated $30-60 billion and would put 1.2 million construction workers back to work. These workers, many of whom would be coming off of unemployment, would pay back 30 percent of their money earned in income taxes, and much of the rest would be pumped back into the economy through their consumer spending. That spending would turn into income for countless others and demand for new products would soar. As LePatner notes, in many cases public-private partnerships could bring this cost to government down considerably.
“I have long been calling for our nation’s politicians to provide leadership on this issue and couple it with the political will to get the job going toward needed infrastructure remediation,” says LePatner. “We can no longer treat our infrastructure as a second- or third-tier priority when it comes to funding. We must remember that the risks we face are not limited to the dangers they cause to the traveling public. They include jeopardizing our country’s entire commercial sector as well as our national security network. ”
Read on for LePatner’s suggestions on how to fund these essential infrastructure repairs:
Improve funding oversight. The current system for overseeing the distribution of federal aid for state highway projects through the Federal Highway Administration is clearly broken. After funds are distributed to the states, it is hard to determine where the money goes. It’s critically important to ensure that forensic audits are provided for all construction projects in excess of $50 million. With the acknowledged fact that almost half of all labor costs on a project are wasted due to the inefficiencies of the construction industry, a higher level of transparency is needed to protect precious taxpayer dollars.
Since its inception, money collected as part of the federal gas tax has been used to build and repair the nation’s roadways. Over the years, though, state and federal officials have started reaching into that pot to fund other less-critical transportation projects not connected to roadways. Politicians frequently use infrastructure funds on new projects that will help them get re-elected—a practice often referred to as “the politics of ribbon cutting”—rather than on their state’s much-needed maintenance and repairs.
“According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the amount of money needed to fix and sustain our nation’s in¬frastructure exceeds $2 trillion,” says LePatner. “Finding the money will require the federal government to play an active role.
“It will require that infrastructure funds collected via an increase in gas taxes be used for their intended purpose. It will entail the development of new, creative relationships between the public and private sectors,” he elaborates. “It will require a renewed sense of urgency on the part of politicians. And it will involve an extensive re-education of our leaders and the public on how to develop regional transportation planning needed for the future growth of our nation.”
Demand true fixed-price contracts from contractors. Construction cost overruns and missed project deadlines regularly plague projects in both the public and private sectors. The way to combat these cost overruns and protect state budgets and taxpayers from disaster is by demanding true fixed-price contracts.
“Most construction contracts contain loopholes that allow contractors to drive up the cost,” explains LePatner. “Standard contracts devised by members of the industry are generally insufficient as they a) fail to properly allocate risk among the parties and b) provide proven loopholes for contractors to make claims for additional costs.
“The right contract for any owner going into a project—be it public or private—is going to be one that offers a true fixed price,” he adds. “Securing true fixed-price contracts on infrastructure projects will require project architects and engineers to deliver construction documents for bidding that are fully detailed, complete in all respects, and coordinated with each other.”
“We can identify risks that may arise and secure agreement from contract
ors on pricing that caps potential cost increases and prevents unwarranted cost overruns. With this kind of reliable information in hand, cost-conscious politicians could begin to make the right decisions.”
Increase the use of money-saving technology. For a country generally smitten with technology, it’s ironic that it’s noticeably absent in maintaining our nation’s costly infrastructure. Using appropriate technology in our transportation infrastructure will produce enough savings to offset the stag¬gering costs resulting from the past few decades of deferred maintenance. New assessment technologies are central to overcoming the lim¬iting effects of visual inspection for both bridge management and funding allocation, and offer a variety of benefits to transportation departments and the public.
“Technology exists to anticipate bridge remediation years before rust, corrosion, and cracks in the structure appear,” says LePatner. “The federal government needs to provide states with funds to purchase this equipment and train their inspectors to use it. Enabling bridge inspectors to ensure precision and objectivity in their evaluation process, which in turn allows us to catch problems earlier when they are easier and cheaper to fix, can save state governments countless millions of dollars a year in unnecessary remediation costs.”
Raise the gas tax. The federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993. “It’s absolutely time to give serious consideration to increasing the federal gas tax,” says LePatner. “Most importantly, we must require that infrastructure funds collected via an increase in gas taxes be allocated for repairing the nation’s dilapidated roads and bridges.”
Increase the use of Public-Private Partnerships (P3s). It is time to actively incentivize private investors to assist in making our failing infrastructure strong again. First, of course, we must take the right precautions, says LePatner.
“We will have to ensure that there is a balance of competing governmental and private profit-seeking interests in P3 projects,” says LePatner. “We will also need to ensure that the proper financial advisors are sitting on the side of state and federal officials to balance out the experts who advise these private investors. By taking the right steps, we can devise several workable models to use P3s to improve the nation’s infrastructure while still protecting the traveling public from excessive toll rates and ensuring that the interests of truckers, railroads, union workers, and the towns and cities along those routes are fairly heard and balanced into the equation.”
Cap construction cost overruns. Construction exigencies are going to occur, but the process for identifying them and quantifying them can be improved. Through sophisticated negotiations, agreement on a true fixed cost for a project—one that factors in negotiated costs for potential contingencies—can be secured before construction begins.
“We need to bring a sense of order to the way we build and maintain the system that is responsible for moving the nation’s products and people,” concludes LePatner. “It’s time for government officials, the federal and state transportation agencies, and leaders in the construction industry to sit down and discuss how we can reform this broken system. Our nation’s leaders must find a way to responsibly and efficiently begin rebuilding and repairing the nation’s infrastructure. If not, I fear it is only a matter of time before we’ll be talking about yet another bridge that has crumbled down.”
For more information, please contact www.SaveOurBridges.com.
About Barry B. LePatner:
Barry B. LePatner is founder of the New York City-based law firm LePatner & Associates LLP. He is author of Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry (University of Chicago Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-2264726-7-6, $25.00, www.BarryLePatner.com) and Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward (University Press of New England, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9844978-0-5, $27.95, www.TooBigToFall.com).
He recently launched www.SaveOurBridges.com, a site educating the public on the perilous state of the nation’s infrastructure. The site includes an interactive map pinpointing the most dangerous bridges in the U.S.
For three decades, he has been prominent as an advisor on business and legal issues affecting the real estate, design, and construction industries. He is recognized as one of the nation’s leading advisors to corporate and institutional clients, real estate owners, and design professionals. Mr. LePatner has also been awarded the distinction of Super Lawyer by Super Lawyers magazine. In 2009, he was rated as one of the top ten real estate attorneys in New York City by the New York Observer.
A November 2007 Governing magazine article stated, “If there’s a guru of construction industry reform, it’s LePatner.” In November 2008, an article in New York magazine referred to Mr. LePatner as “a Cassandra of infrastructure.”
Mr. LePatner is recognized as a thought leader in the construction industry. As the coauthor of Structural and Foundation Failures (McGraw-Hill, 1982) and with 35 years of experience as a construction lawyer, he brings a special understanding of the engineering, business, and legal issues attendant to the design and construction processes—knowledge he put to good use in his latest book, Too Big to Fall. His second book, Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets, was very well received inside and outside the construction industry and helped create a national debate among owners, designers, and other key stakeholders.
Mr. LePatner has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Forbes.com, the Chicago Tribune, Infrastructurist.com, and other prestigious publications. His articles and speeches on the perilous state of our nation’s infrastructure have garnered widespread attention, including his serving as a commentator on the multi-billion-dollar stimulus plan of the Obama administration. He has appeared on many television and radio broadcasts, including interviews on CNBC, Fox Business Network, and several National Public Radio segments.
A nationally recognized speaker, Mr. LePatner has addressed audiences on topics central to the real estate and construction industries, including events sponsored by the International Economic Forum of the Americas, Syracuse University, and several construction industry associations with
audiences including contractors, architects, engineers, construction technology experts, economic experts, and other construction industry thought leaders.
In 2002, Mr. LePatner was honored by the American Institute of Architects with its highest award to a non-architect when he was given an honorary AIA membership. He is also currently on the Board of Trustees of the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA). He has also served on numerous advisory committees including: the Advisory Board, Society for Marketing Professional Services; the Board of the New York Building Congress; Board of Advisors, Legal Briefs for the Construction Industry; American Institute of Architects Advisory Committee; and the National Academy of Sciences.
About the Books:
Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward (University Press of New England, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9844978-0-5, $27.95, www.TooBigToFall.com) and Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry (University of Chicago Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-2264726-7-6, $25.00, www.BarryLePatner.com) are available at bookstores nationwide and all major online booksellers.