Episode Preview with Texas A&M's Nasir Gharaibeh (audio, 26s):
Full Episode (audio):
July 6, 2023Episode 61. Is America’s Infrastructure Turning a Corner?
FEATURING: Charles Gurganus, Nasir Gharaibeh
Two years have passed since America’s last road and bridge report card, and we’ll wait another two years for the next one. An unofficial mid-term grade suggests that conditions are improving.
About Our Guests
Charles Gurganus manages TTI's Pavement Management Program in the Institute's Materials & Pavements Division. He's also deputy director for the A&M System's Center for Infrastructure Renewal. Charles spent 10 years with the Texas Department of Transportation before coming to TTI. He considers himself a generalist in transportation infrastructure engineering and enjoys working on projects for a diverse group of public and private sponsors.
Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering
Nasir Gharaibeh is a professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Texas A&M University. Prior to joining Texas A&M, he worked at the University of Texas at El Paso and at Applied Research Associates, Inc. Nasir obtained his Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He studies and teaches infrastructure systems, with emphasis on improving their performance and resilience by optimizing maintenance and renewal strategies.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello and welcome to Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers produces a report card on the status of our nation’s infrastructure. Their last report card was issued in 2021 and we can expect the next one in 2025, but a lot can happen in four years. So we’ve invited a couple of experts today in hopes of taking a closer look at things, in the absence of an official reporting period. We might think of it as a time for a mid-term grade. Charles Gurganus is the pavement management program manager at TTI and the deputy director of the Center for Infrastructure Renewal. Nasir Gharaibeh is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Texas A&M University. Charles and Nasir, thank you both for sharing your time with us.
Charles Gurganus (guest) (01:22):
Thanks for the invitation, Bernie.
Nasir Gharaibeh (guest) (01:23):
Bernie Fette (01:24):
I believe that most of our listeners are at least somewhat familiar with the infrastructure report card that’s prepared every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It’s been two years since America got its last report card, so it will be two more before we see the next one. I was hoping that we could get a midterm check-in of sorts from both of you. And on a somewhat related note, I noticed in the email exchange to get this all set up that each of you was congratulating the other person on the scholastic success of one of your children. So maybe this resonates a little bit for you in that regard. Just because of the timing at the end of a school year. In 2021, the nation’s infrastructure scored a C. That’s an average of all of the various categories as you know, and it’s a slight improvement over the score from four years prior to that, which was a D-plus. So in the absence of an official report card from the ASCE, because again, we’ll wait another two years for that, I would like to ask you both to assign an unofficial mid-term grade for us now in 2023. Let’s start with the overall grade and your thoughts on why you gave that score and then maybe we can get into just a bit more detail about the specific transportation infrastructure elements. Charles, I’ll invite you to go first if you would.
Charles Gurganus (02:55):
Sure. So I think we’re probably in that C to C-minus range overall, just kinda shooting from the hip there. And if you look at the way ASCE defines what a C score is, what they really say is that the network is in fair to good condition and is showing signs of deterioration. And I think that’s a fair statement for most of the infrastructure, kind of hard side transportation related infrastructure that we encounter on a daily basis. We drive across some things and we say, Hey, this could use an upgrade. We drive across other things and we say, Hey, this is really nice. And so with the way, you know, ASCE kinda rates it out. I think we settle into that maybe C, C-minus and maybe a little bit closer to the C-minus side just because of the age of a lot of our elements out there and the demand that those elements are experiencing.
Bernie Fette (03:47):
Nasir Gharaibeh (03:48):
Yeah, I agree with Charles. I think with the big investment in infrastructure, you know, we are talking about putting more than 500 billion into infrastructure between 2022 and 2026. That should have some effect, maybe a little bit on the higher end of what Charles estimated, I would say we would be in the C range and maybe will start seeing some improvement.
Bernie Fette (04:21):
So if we were talking about a student here, once again, you’d be cautiously optimistic about the student’s potential?
Nasir Gharaibeh (04:28):
Bernie Fette (04:29):
Okay. Let’s dig just a little deeper on the categories that are more specific to surface transportation. Starting with bridges. I think, Nasir, this is one of your specialty areas, correct?
Nasir Gharaibeh (04:40):
My specialty is in infrastructure management as a whole. And bridges of course is a big component of that.
Bernie Fette (04:47):
So America earned a C two years ago, that’s actually a drop from a C-plus in 2017. What are your thoughts there?
Nasir Gharaibeh (04:57):
I think we should see some improvement. I’m gonna stay a little bit also cautiously optimistic on bridges. We’ll see a little bit of improvement, maybe a C or C-plus.
Bernie Fette (05:11):
Charles, do you have anything to add?
Charles Gurganus (05:14):
I think Dr. Gharaibeh’s, right, especially on our on-system network. So, bridges that are owned by Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT, or by other departments of transportation, DOTs across the country. There’s been lots of effort in upgrading those on-system bridges, getting extra width, building new ones where needed and where they can. There are still a lot of challenges say at the county level across the country. Those smaller agencies own a lot of assets as well and their funding mechanisms are different than DOTs and I think that presents a lot of challenges. Sometimes they’re juggling a lot of different expenses. You know, if it’s a city, they might be determining how many new fire trucks we buy versus what we do with upgrading some of our bridges. And so that’s just a little bit of a challenge with owning infrastructure across the country. The DOTs are trending in the right direction and have been I think on bridges for a long time. Some of our more local agencies maybe have other fiscal things going on that make that a little bit more challenging on their end.
Bernie Fette (06:24):
Is that simply because their funding sources are not as specifically dedicated as the DOT funding sources are?
Charles Gurganus (06:31):
I think that’s part of it. I think cities and city leadership, they answer directly to their constituents and so they have a pulse on what their locals need and desire. And so as long as there’s not necessarily a safety concern associated with a piece of infrastructure, they may be putting their funds somewhere else. But Dr. Gharaibeh might have a little bit better take on that as well.
Nasir Gharaibeh (06:53):
Charles is right about that. Their state’s process is more focused, their mission is more specific to infrastructure. The dynamics of decision making at the local level is a bit different than the dynamics of decision making at the state level.
Bernie Fette (07:10):
Let’s talk about roads. The roads report card got a D two years ago for the United States road condition, which was unchanged from four years prior. What are your thoughts on that component of our infrastructure?
Nasir Gharaibeh (07:28):
I think it’s a good idea to keep kinda thinking of it in terms of state level and local level. At the state level, I think you will see improvement because of the big investments that are being made in this system. For example, as part of the new law, bridges are receiving the largest investment since the construction of the Interstate system. The Interstate system was constructed basically in the fifties, sixties, early seventies. And since that time now bridges are gonna get a big amount of money to replace and repair and so forth. That has to make a difference. And similar investments are being made in pavements as well. So that will show in the condition of roads.
Charles Gurganus (08:19):
I think Dr. Gharaibeh’s right on that. We are seeing the on-system network, we usually use that type of phrase to describe what our DOTs own, what’s interesting with what the public will feel and the users of our system, because of the money that’s being pushed out there now, they will see and experience more construction. So it will be interesting to see what ASCE does in a couple of years when they issue this new report card and maybe people feel like infrastructure has more construction on it, which people typically don’t like because then that usually leads to inconvenience. So it’ll be interesting to see if we see a dip that then leads to something that hopefully is significant improvement say six years from now. I will say that I do think that there’s been a lot of development in engineering in the design on our pavements as we continue to deploy these dollars into industry. And, and what I mean by that is seeing lots of advancements in equipment and in materials and in putting those things together, a lot of partnerships between private sector and public sector to where the finished product that’s going to come out of this is going to be better than it’s ever been before. So I’m optimistic that when this all shakes out, we’re going to see a significant bump in that number specifically on pavements.
Bernie Fette (09:40):
You bring up an interesting point there, Charles, whenever you talk about what the public will notice, maybe it would be helpful for all of our listeners. I know I’m curious about this particular question about how the ASCE actually comes about. Its scoring how they come about their grades. Do they consider things like you were mentioning, like what people see. Do they in any way consider public opinion or is it all very strictly condition- based and they don’t get into any other things or any other anticipated funding levels or anything like that?
Nasir Gharaibeh (10:17):
ASCE ratings, they are useful to kinda convey the picture to the public, right? And the grading system, everybody knows what that means, you know, A, B, C and so forth. But we have to remember that these ratings are not really precise and they are not based on hard data. A lot of it is what’s called expert opinion. It relies a lot on publicly available data, but it is not an exact science. It’s a mixture of art and science and judgment.
Bernie Fette (10:50):
It’s designed to keep infrastructure at the front of people’s thinking to whatever extent possible.
Nasir Gharaibeh (10:56):
Bernie Fette (10:57):
Okay. Rail earned a B two years ago, which was also unchanged from 2017. And I know that the two of you do not consider yourselves to be rail experts, but you’re nonetheless familiar. So what thoughts would you have on the rail score? Because of all of the categories that we look at in the ASCE report card, rail is the element that gets the highest grade. What do you think that that says about the condition of that mode, the investment level, the importance to the industry? What are your thoughts on rail?
Nasir Gharaibeh (11:31):
I think rail is a little bit different than the rest of them. One is a lot of it is privately owned. Companies own the railway system. The other thing is it’s somewhat similar to bridges in the safety factor issues, you know, so safety plays a big role in the evaluation or the grading of the rail infrastructure. So as long as we don’t have accidents — there were high profile accidents; one comes to mind in Ohio, I believe. So those get attention in the news media and people hear about them. So that kind of brings the rail condition down. Accidents happen, but they are rare compared to roadway accidents.
Bernie Fette (12:14):
Right. And the Association of American Railroads, according to what they’ve said in the media, train accidents are down more than 40 percent since 2000. Including those that are caused by track problems. The infrastructure part of this, you mentioned what’s probably a very important distinction in that the railroads are privately owned, rail gets the highest infrastructure score from the ASCE. Is there a connection there? Is that the reason or perhaps the main reason why it’s getting the highest grade? Is it because of its funding model?
Nasir Gharaibeh (12:50):
It might, but I go back to the tight tolerance for safety issues in rail. The margin of error in rail is really tight. If a track is deficient, you really have to fix it right away because the safety consequences will show up almost right away. Whereas if you have a road that has potholes and cracks and things like that, the safety concerns are not as urgent as they are in rail. So maybe the combination of these two factors, the importance of safety as well as the ownership model, maybe these two play a role.
Bernie Fette (13:34):
And the rail companies know that to have a successful and profitable company, they need to have a safe operation.
Nasir Gharaibeh (13:40):
Bernie Fette (13:40):
I see you nodding Charles. Any further thoughts on the rail piece of this?
Charles Gurganus (13:46):
No, I mean I think Dr. Gharaibeh covered most of it there. The private ownership model connected with the safety aspect of it, combined with the fact that it’s a more controlled user environment. And what I mean by that is trains are scheduled, the person operating the train is employed by the private company. There’s a limited number of them, the route is well-defined, the number of cars is well-defined, what they’re hauling is regulated and well-defined. Contrast that with a roadway where you have thousands of users all who essentially work for themselves, right? I mean it’s the individual driving on the roadway to get to whatever destination it is they want. Using the system in multiple pieces of the system that are maybe a little bit fractured and disjointed. It’s not like a linear rail where it’s very, very fixed. Right? So there’s all this complexity that gets added into the highway network. There’s that aspect that is, I would say somewhat simplifies the rail system and then the private business model drives towards safety. One because the magnitude of a safety issue on the rail. But also we can’t take out the fact that if you have a safety issue and your rail goes outta commission, that impacts the bottom line.
Bernie Fette (15:02):
Right. And the profit margins in that industry are razor thin. So that speaks to it a bit also it would seem.
Charles Gurganus (15:10):
Yeah, so our roadway systems are essentially publicly owned either by DOT, county, or city compared to the private model and the rail system. So then if you think about how you might want to try to make more of an apples-to-apples comparison there, you might take a look at like some of our tolled facilities, if you think about Texas taking a look at say North Texas Toll Authority, HCTRA is the Harris County tolling entity. They have a privately owned system or what is more privately owned; functions a little bit more like a rail system, a little bit more performance-based specifications. So that comparison might be worth a look at and see if those models are a little bit more similar than just say the DOT model.
Bernie Fette (15:49):
We’ve got just one more on what I would guess is the surface transportation modes and that’s transit, which got a D minus two years ago. Once again unchanged from 2017. One thing that kind of stands out here it seems is that transit gets the lowest grade of all the transportation modes in the ASCE report card. What are your thoughts there?
Nasir Gharaibeh (16:13):
I’ll go first, maybe Charles? You know, again, transit is, is kind of has its own unique issues. First, transit is primarily an urban infrastructure. You know, we don’t see it much in rural areas. It depends a lot on ridership and funding for it and so forth is different mechanisms than say the hard infrastructure like roads and bridges and airports and so forth. Plus at that, the issue of public transportation in the U.S. Is not as high priority as in other industrial countries. For example, compare public transportation in the U.S. to public transportation in Japan, completely different model in the U.S We like to ride our cars and move around and so forth. So transit gets less attention maybe than the other types of infrastructure.
Charles Gurganus (17:16):
Yeah, I think that’s a fair summary. I think a lot of times transit becomes political in terms of how are we going to fund it?And some of that has to do with in the United States it often needs to be subsidized because the ridership is not there to offset the capital cost associated with it. We are a driver-friendly country. We have been so since the Interstate started to connect people coast to coast 50 and 60 years ago. So I think transit’s always kind of battling for its piece of the pie. Like our roadway systems, transit’s a complex piece of infrastructure. You have stations, you have rail, you have car, you, you’ve got rolling stock you. And so it’s a very complex animal to try to finance and keep in good working order. That’s a challenge for our transit operators across the country.
Bernie Fette (18:05):
We have one more category that I guess technically is a surface transportation mode. Our seaports which earned a B-minus two years ago, which was an improvement over the C-plus in 2017. Ports have their own distinctions from the other modes that we’ve talked about. Any thoughts on our port condition?
Charles Gurganus (18:29):
Give it a shot, Dr. Gharaibeh.
Nasir Gharaibeh (18:31):
<laugh>. Yeah, I think it kind of goes with transit and maybe to some extent rail. Those types of infrastructure are really, they have their unique issues that a lot of times go beyond the physical condition of the infrastructure. You know, port capacity and congestion and you know, issues that the one that we experienced after Covid, if you recall, we have, you know, supply chain issues and ports were congested. That will probably affect the grade because those grades, they combine a lot of factors. So the functional aspects of the type of infrastructure plays a role.
Charles Gurganus (19:16):
I would just add to that, that ports are a little bit interesting as well because they’re the origin for a lot of goods that end up on other modes of transportation. And so if your ports were operating at say an A-plus, that would, I would think imply a drastic amount of throughput. And if that’s the case, we then have to ask ourselves can our rail system and our roadway system handle the throughput of goods or would it just lead to those scores going down as it caught up? And so this is where infrastructure becomes fun because these things start to connect and these grades start to overlap each other as you start to think about the intersection of all of these different infrastructure components. Yeah,
Nasir Gharaibeh (20:00):
Yeah, that’s a good point that these things are really interconnected and interdependent.
Bernie Fette (20:05):
So they’re graded separately in the report card, but they do not function entirely independently.
Nasir Gharaibeh (20:11):
Bernie Fette (20:11):
There’s a good bit of overlap and one moving part is potentially going to affect others.
Nasir Gharaibeh (20:19):
Bernie Fette (20:21):
Let’s move for just a few minutes if we can from talking about the conditions and the problems or the challenges you might say and talk about the what should be done, the solution side of this a little bit, starting with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that you mentioned a little while ago, Nasir. What is that legislation all about and what can we expect to happen from it?
Nasir Gharaibeh (20:47):
That legislation is really, it’s a big investment in infrastructure and it’s a broad investment. There are components in it that are related to roads and bridges, water transit, workforce development, resilience to climate change issues. So there are many, many programs in it that will affect somehow the condition of our infrastructure as we move forward. You know, it started from 2022, so it’s a five-year law if you will, from 2022 to 2026, about 550 billion are invested in these programs, which cover a lot of aspects of infrastructure. We should start seeing some effect of it in terms of improvement, you know, as we move forward into the future.
Charles Gurganus (21:45):
So I guess I’ll jump in on a couple of things with the IIJA, just food for thought for our listeners cuz Dr. Gharaibeh, I think did a great job of describing and summarizing the funding levels and the scale of it. I would say that for the end user, you need to be a little bit patient. So infrastructure projects are not, it’s not flipping a light switch. They’re not developed and turned on in a day or even a year. They do take time to develop. That’s both on the study side of things all the way through the design and through the construction side of it. We also have some aspects right now where some of the funding that’s out there is helping offset the cost of inflation as the construction price index has gone up significantly. So there’s gonna be a lot of moving parts as these dollars move through different infrastructure sectors to produce projects. Building and being part of infrastructure is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. And so every time money gets out there, just remember that, that one day you will wake up and your problem hopefully will be solved, but that won’t be tomorrow. It’ll be in the future sometime.
Bernie Fette (22:54):
And an important point that you raise, Charles, is that the highway cost index is rising pretty quickly. I think that inflation, consumer-focused inflation has been in the news a lot lately, but what a lot of our listeners may not know is that inflation for highway materials and road and bridge construction materials, that rate of inflation is much higher and has risen faster than the rate of inflation for bread, milk, automobiles and other things that people are more familiar with, right?
Charles Gurganus (23:24):
Bernie Fette (23:24):
And you mentioned something about pavement design, which makes me wonder what thoughts both of you have about where technology fits in to addressing the infrastructure challenge.
Nasir Gharaibeh (23:38):
Technology is affecting the way we design things, the way that we repair things, the way that we monitor the condition of infrastructure. It’s affecting, you know, all aspects of infrastructure development from design to construction to maintenance and monitoring. Give you some examples. You know, there are all kinds of sensors that are available to watch and monitor the condition of bridges and pavements, get more accurate data quickly to the hands of the decision makers to make decisions on when to repair a piece of infrastructure, how to repair it. On the software side, there are technologies that help with decision making. How do I prioritize my projects? You know, what factors should I include? Where does this money go? How does it get invested? There is software to help with that material side. People are thinking about producing material that lasts longer, that drains water faster in a more effective way. So technology helps in all aspects.
Charles Gurganus (24:55):
Yeah, and to carry that into, say the construction side and what we’re seeing the private sector work on. So automated vehicles are in the news for automated driving and things like that, but the, um, heavy equipment manufacturers are in that business as well. What heavy equipment can be automated or what things can be put on it to improve the finished quality? So is it smoother, is it more compacted or, or whatever it might be. So you have the major heavy equipment operators investing a lot into this technology. Those things are great oftentimes from a safety perspective because maybe sometimes we can pull a person out of a potentially unsafe environment, replace it with a piece of equipment. Of course that comes with a whole workforce development component. How do we help transition the workforce as technology continues to evolve so fast? Because it just seems like it’s moving really quickly.
Bernie Fette (25:54):
This is really such a huge topic and so difficult to tackle it effectively in a discussion that lasts less than an hour. But if there was just one thing that you hoped our listeners would take away from what we’ve talked about today, what would that one thing be?
Nasir Gharaibeh (26:16):
I would go with the thought that Charles brought up, which is patience. Pieces of infrastructure are designed to last a long time. Bridges last 50, a hundred years. It takes a long time to design them. It takes a long time to build them and they stay in service for a long time. So patience is critical from the public standpoint. Change does not happen quickly when we deal with these big structures.
Charles Gurganus (26:47):
So what I would maybe say is complexity, dealing with infrastructure is a complex topic and that often means how we finance its solutions can be a little bit complex as well. IIJA is pushing a lot of money out there. Texas has done a lot of good things with various proposition bonds over the years to try to invest in infrastructure. But there’s a lot of municipalities, a lot of counties that own a lot of infrastructure elements, constituencies. The people that use these systems need to think about how we finance these solutions. So our scores go up. So what do you want your system to look like? And then listen to in your local areas and in your states, different opportunities to finance them and then decide if it’s right for your community. Because I think we’re going to have to invest in our infrastructure. But I think sometimes that’s done really well at the local level because of the different complexities of it. Meeting the needs of a local constituency I think is, is important to consider when we talk about infrastructure.
Bernie Fette (27:55):
Last question. What is it that makes you want to get up and come to work every day?
Charles Gurganus (28:03):
To solve our infrastructure problems requires a lot of really smart people. And I’ve really enjoyed over the last say 10 years, seeing a transition in my career of being around a lot of gifted people that have a lot of knowledge that I, I didn’t even know it existed in some cases, and I’ve learned so much from them. And then be able to input the civil engineering technical aspect to it makes the job fun.
Bernie Fette (28:27):
Nasir Gharaibeh (28:28):
Agree. We are fortunate in civil engineering that we get to do the, the engineering, technical engineering part. That’s still kind of the heart of what we do, but because what we do, it affects people’s lives. Transportation, you know, it’s part of everyday life for many people. We get to make that kinda extension, that kind of jump beyond the technical work and go into how does that affect people, right? And that requires interacting with peoples from all kinds of disciplines.
Bernie Fette (29:04):
Dr. Charles Gurganus is the pavement management program manager at TTI and the deputy director of the Center for Infrastructure Renewal. Dr. Nasir Gharaibeh is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Texas A&M University. Charles and Nasir, thank you both so much for sharing your time and your insight with us today.
Nasir Gharaibeh (29:27):
Charles Gurganus (29:28):
Bernie Fette (29:31):
It’s easy to take our transportation infrastructure for granted, whether traveling across town or across the country. We simply go about our journeys, rarely appreciating how truly reliable our mobility network is. We could all use a reminder of that now and then, because roads and bridges in America were built to last, but they were not built to last forever. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode, and please join us again next time for a conversation with Jeff Shelton. We can learn more then about how research is using sophisticated traffic models to help cities prepare for natural disasters and other extreme events. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University system. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.