Don’t just build transportation infrastructure. Build it to last.

In September 5, 2017

Projects that connect us better won’t become obsolete
By Thomas J. Spearing III
Crain’s New York Business

A 100-year lifespan—it’s praise we associate with lucky senior citizens, but rarely with transportation assets such as bridges and highways. That’s partly because such projects have traditionally been built to last just 50 years owing to the limitations of materials and engineering techniques at the time of construction. For example, the Tappan Zee Bridge, which opened in 1955, was designed for a 50-year lifespan (and was used for 62, thanks to more than two decades of ongoing maintenance). But, today, this paradigm is shifting, and New Yorkers will be the beneficiaries.

The Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge (replacing the Tappan Zee), the new Kosciuszko Bridge and the Goethals Bridge replacement are all taking advantage of advanced design techniques and materials to achieve a 100-year expected lifespan. (Disclosure: My employer, HNTB Corp., is owners’ representative for the Cuomo Bridge, designer of the Kosciuszko Bridge, and technical consultant for the Goethals Bridge replacement.) Creating such critical infrastructure with longevity in mind ensures that we spend both today’s dollars—and tomorrow’s—wisely.

These state-of-the-art bridges are designed to be multimodal: Beyond their vehicle lanes, they feature dedicated lanes for bicycles, pedestrians and/or public transit. This extends their value in terms of sustainability, access, congestion-reduction and even public health. While few cities can match New York for multimodal transportation offerings, we know from experience that navigating the connections between modes is what’s most challenging. That’s why future transportation projects must follow the lead of this new generation of bridges, planned from the start to allow for seamless mobility.

It will take money to build a transportation system that combines near-term mobility and long-term endurance. We must commit to sustaining funding levels that align with the benefits we hope to achieve, whether they take the form of taxes, tolls or user fees. We also must be open to creative funding concepts such as public-private partnerships, which have been crucial to funding projects such as the new Goethals Bridge.

By taking greater advantage of innovations such as design-build project delivery we can accelerate projects while lowering costs. We should leverage incentives and rewards to encourage new ideas that improve quality, accelerate project completion or save money. We need to knock down the walls between stakeholder groups such as federal, state and local elected officials, labor, the construction industry, environmental groups as well as others, and align their interests to gain their best ideas and find ways to move forward together.

Such work is tough, but if we don’t do it we set ourselves up for more pain down the road in the form of higher costs to address ever worsening transportation problems. Instead, let’s have the courage to come together, draw on the combined intelligence of everyone in the field and push through today’s difficulties to prepare a path for mobility that will reap benefits for the next 100 years.

Thomas J. Spearing III is national transit program management/construction management practice leader for HNTB Corp.