Those multi-trillion-dollar figures thrown around for infrastructure repair make progress seem impossible without huge tax increases and a long commitment to a plan — something on the scale of the Interstate Highway System, the Space program, and a world war combined. The cynic in me predicts a complete lack of political will to see this through.
The engineer in me, however, knows that when challenged, people can achieve amazing results with limited resources. You do not need to go back to the seven wonders of the ancient world to see this, although those History Channel speculations are worth a look. Our transcontinental railroad and various 19th century bridges were not built by aliens either.
I was involved with several projects that seemed impossible when first proposed that convince me our infrastructure mess is not going to need divine intervention.
Project #1 involved rotting wooden trusses. During WWII, metal was in short supply so even buildings needed for defense work had to use wood. Many years of deferred maintenance and quickie “band aid” repairs caught up with us one very snowy winter; the 3rd shift foreman was waiting for me when I arrived to show me that one of our cranes was holding up a broken truss. We knew it was in poor shape but the high cost and time out of operation quoted for repairs made it economically impossible.
Our team knew the big boss would expect an action plan when he arrived in two hours. We kicked some ideas around — I got to ride up in a bucket truck to measure the arc of the best remaining truss — and we had pieces of fifteen-inch c-channel being rolled before the morning was out. Three days later we built a metal replacement truss around the broken wooden one, used a big fork lift to push it into position, fastened it down, and cut the wood away with a chain saw. The process worked so well we replaced the other seven trusses over the next few weeks at less than the quoted price for one station — and without lost production.
Of course this encouraged the boss to throw other big challenges our way. Modify a 60-inch bevel machine to make 90-inch parts? Yes sir! Design and build a gear gashing machine? No problem. How about a 35,000-gallon quench system for the vendor’s quoted engineering cost?
If you have no other viable option but to think outside the box, you’ll never know what you can accomplish. We cannot ignore our infrastructure much longer. It is time to call on ingenuity to knock down the cost involved.