A change in presidential administrations brings new opportunity to garner support for infrastructure investment, including waterways and flood-control improvements, says Steven Stockton, civilian director of civil works for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Infrastructure investment is the economic stimulus the nation needs, he says.
Engineers and public-works officials must convey that message to the new administration, Stockton advised the National Waterways Conference’s annual meeting in New Orleans on Nov. 6. Stockton cited statements made by President-elect Barack Obama during the campaign as demonstrating Obama’s recognition and support for infrastructure improvement. “I think, from the Corps of Engineers’ perspective, Obama will be good for us,” Stockton said.
Although the Corps does not lobby, it is obligated to inform. “It’s about how we provide public safety, maintain the environment and sustain a legacy of inland waterways for the next generation,” Stockton said.
But the failing condition of infrastructure is evidence that the message hasn’t been getting through, so one challenge is to figure out “how the Corps needs to change to deliver the message more effectively,” Stockton says. One way is to focus on a systems approach to watershed management. “We need to get away from this notion of our program as a collection of projects and work with states and local authorities, so when government comes to us, we have an informed plan that combines the best knowledge of all,” he said.
Rob Vining, vice president of federal government relations for HNTB, Kansas City, said such an “informed plan” had better come soon if it is to capture the Obama administration’s support. “A new administration sets its priorities in about six months, so time is of the essence,” Vining said. “We have let the nation’s attention wane in regard to the needs for our national waterways. Let’s not make that mistake with the new administration.”
The Midwest floods of 2008 give many examples of return on infrastructure investment, noted Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Corp’s Mississippi Valley Division and president-designee of the Mississippi River Commission. He noted that, from March to July, the Mississippi Valley endured epic floods that caused billions of dollars in damages, mostly as a result of the failure of agricultural and nonfederal levees. But he called attention to flood-control structures put in place since the floods of 1973 that performed well. The Corps calculates they prevented about $30 billion in damages. “So what is the value of public infrastructure?” Walsh asked. “I think the value to the nation, just in these events, is obvious.”
Waterways maintenance is also vital to the nation’s electric utilities, added Dirk Cook, Birmingham, Ala.-based principal for transportation for Southern Co., Atlanta. “Waterways are extremely important for our business, providing transportation for fuel, construction materials, limestone for emissions control and cooling water,” he said. More than 146 million tons of coal and coke, used to generate 56% of the nation’s electricity, are moved by waterways each year, Cook said.