Friday, May 23, 2014

We've Moved!

Looking for the Stantec blog? We're still posting, but now on the blog on our snazzy new website. Please continue to follow us for news, insights, and opinions on what's happening in the world of design!

Friday, May 2, 2014

America’s Bridge Crisis: We Need to Get Creative in Funding

Submitted by Steve Bertos, with contributions from Stu Lerner and Jerry Bartucci (NY, NY)

Last weekend USA Today ran a front-page story titled “63,000 bridges desperately need repair.” Of course that’s not news to those of us who work to design and improve the country’s infrastructure – we all know it. We live it.

For decades, the engineering community has emphatically stressed the growing urgency of repairing America’s aging roads and bridges, a message that gets louder after each occurrence, such as when the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007. But then the message tends to diminish again.  Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) compiles its “report card” of the country’s infrastructure, which for 2013 ranked bridges at a C+. It’s not surprising – many of these bridges were built well over 50 years ago and frequently exceed their anticipated lifespan. But bridge maintenance is costly, so unfortunately these repairs often get put off until there’s a truly unsafe situation.
Steve Bertos

The recent USA Today story, and many others, emphasize that the problem, as big as it is today, will only get worse if Congress does not act to re-fund the federal Highway Trust Fund before its current terms expires in September. However, revisiting the same solvency-challenged funding pool should not be the only means for addressing this problem. The Highway Trust Fund is and always has been funded by the federal fuel tax and related excise taxes. Congress has added to it over the last few years, but clearly the fuel tax alone cannot support the costs of the repairs that need to be made. Gas prices are soaring, making it an economic burden on consumers to raise that tax, and with the projected federal deficits, it’s unrealistic to expect Congress will continue to augment the fund every few years.

Jerry Bartucci
Instead, we need to identify new sources of funding for the Highway Trust Fund, especially if it’s intended to foster the development of all surface transportation modes, not just bridges. While it is, of course, easier said than done, government officials must explore new options, from one-time bonds, to taxes on new large-scale developments, to eliminating tax breaks for certain types of industries or business endeavors. Many communities are considering, or even making, these kinds of changes, but very little headway has been made on the federal level. The White House did put forth its own proposal for finding new funding this week, but many of the suggestions – such as closing some corporate tax loopholes – aren’t expected to go anywhere in a heavily partisan Congress.
Stu Lerner

At ASCE’s Legislative Fly-In last March, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx reassured attendees that Congress will act to make changes, thanks to keen interest from both parties and President Obama (read more of his remarks on the ASCE blog). We certainly hope so because, at the current pace of improvements, the question still remains if we can ever get bridge conditions where they need to be across the country.

Steve, Stu, and Jerry are based in our New York City office and specialize in transportation infrastructure.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Removing Dams, Restoring Rivers

Submitted by Bryon Ringley (Columbus, OH)

Rendering of the Scioto riverfront after restoration 
We’ve known for a long while that dam removal is important for many reasons. In my years at Stantec, there’s been a growing movement to remove dams where the costs – including environmental, safety, and societal impacts – outweigh the benefits, or where a dam no longer serves any useful purpose. However, in recent years, an interesting shift in public thinking is changing the motivation behind some of our largest dam removal and river restoration projects.

Although dams do provide some benefits, such as drinking water supply and a barrier to invasive species, a large portion of dams that once served a purpose are becoming obsolete. Dams can create a safety hazard for people and are also an ecological barrier, meaning a barrier to fish migration, and in turn, a barrier to freshwater mussel life. This does not promote a healthy stream system.

In light of these hazards, a significant factor in recent dam removal efforts is to restore the rivers and the natural flows for fish and wildlife, and reinstate the natural sediment and nutrient flow. We’ve seen a desire from the public to restore their surroundings back to their natural state.

In this existing conditions view, you can see
where the riverfront is underutilized as a public amenity
But, the most interesting push for river restoration and dam removal in urban areas has been the shift in the public’s thinking to embrace their local waterways and activate the riverfronts. In the past, communities would shun waterways in their towns. If you look at historic photos from a city’s founding, you see that cities were built to face away from rivers and waterways. In recent years, we’ve seen a desire to make those rivers the “front door” to the city. Instead of a barrier, people want those rivers to connect and anchor the city.

In Columbus, two of our largest dam removal/river restoration projects were motivated by this same shift in public thinking. The Scioto Greenways project in downtown Columbus was spurred by public interest in water quality improvement of the river, and the ability to recreate on the waterway.

As part of the 2010 Downtown Master Plan, public meetings were conducted and comments were received from the community. We were surprised to find that the Scioto Greenways project was ranked as the number one priority by the community. They wanted to reconnect with their natural environment and be able to appreciate the natural areas around them.

As part of this project, our team is creating 33 acres of green space for public use on both banks of the Scioto River, creating walking and biking trails, planting trees and vegetation, and narrowing the river from 600 feet wide to 300 feet wide to create more room for recreational activities. This project, when completed, is intended to transform the landscape of downtown Columbus and feature the river as an integral part of the city.

Bryon Ringley
At The Ohio State University a dam removal and restoration of the Olentangy River on campus is almost complete. The river, once restored, is looked to be used as a new academic learning area for biology and wildlife type classes, and as a recreational area. The college has hopes that the river and surrounding greenspace will become the “next Oval,” the primary outdoor gathering spot for students in the center of campus.

Across the country, dam removal and river restoration projects are improving ecological systems and habitats, and here in our own backyard, we’re seeing these projects create vibrant communities, improve connectivity, and bring people together.

Bryon Ringley is a senior principal and water practice leader in our Columbus, Ohio office.