The civil engineering profession is, as described by Andres Duany, "treated as gods". In cities large and small, their recommendations are rarely, if ever, challenged. In small towns, they are the primary resource for most communities planning their future. To put it boldly; the infrastructure of this country is the product of the engineering profession.

It is not surprising that engineers speak with authority when discussing the country's infrastructure. We recently wrote about the American Society of Civil Engineer's (ASCE) scorecard on America's infrastructure. ASCE gave the country a "D" and indicated that we need $2.2 trillion just to catch up on needed infrastructure maintenance. 

I tell my fellow planners that I am a "recovering engineer". Actually, I am a licensed civil engineer in the State of Minnesota and am proud to have that unique knowledge and background that I can bring to the planning profession. I am a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers.  While my engineering work today is limited to broad planning applications, I stay current on my license and do what I can to improve my engineering knowledge.

It is not uncommon for me to receive solicitations from ASCE, and, since I don't feel the need to belong to two engineering societies, those solicitations usually get the circular file. But I happened to open one and saved it to share with you. Here is an excerpt, with bold and underline type as presented by ASCE:

On January 28, 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released the grades from the 2009 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, and as you can see below, the grade are not good.

The Report Card Could Mean New Opportunities For You!

With increased infrastructure spending in the offing, there could be many opportunities to advance your career. But to take advantage of these opportunities, you need to know about them. And in the meantime, you need to position yourself to prosper in the "new economy." The best way to do that is to become part of ASCE.

So, let me summarize for ASCE in non-engineer speak: America is being weakened by failing infrastructure - not exactly failing....we give it a "D". We have the authority to make this pronouncement because you trust us. After pronouncing our infrastructure as a "D", we need you to know that it will take $2.2 trillion just to to catch up. The "catch up" money is, of course, a tremendous opportunity for us civil engineers, who stand to prosper from the entire transaction.

I can only assume by "new economy" that they mean one over-gorged with massive spending on infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.

Let me pose some questions at this point: 

  1. Who is responsible for us being in this position?
  2. How is it that we have $2.2 trillion in unfunded maintenance liability?
  3. What decisions along the way got us here?
  4. How do we stop from repeating the same mistakes?

Inevitably, civil engineers will answer these questions by blaming politicians and those that elect them for essentially not giving them all the money they need and want to properly build and maintain all the infrastructure. The politicians are responsible. We have so much liability because we under funded maintenance. We are here because we are cheap and we stop repeating the mistake by loosening the purse strings and funding more infrastructure.

If it were only so easy.

The reality is that engineers bear a large part of the responsibility for where we are. Engineers have built this infrastructure, largely without planning for its impacts or long-term costs. But worse, they often represent themselves and their projects as if they have planned. This is not because they are sinister, but that they are not planners. For engineers, "planning" is just a euphemism for "design".

Engineers are incapable, because of the narrowness of their charge, of making policy-level decisions. A city's road is at capacity. The solution for the engineer is obvious: build more capacity. While logical in its simplest form, this simple hammer/nail approach overlooks the complex human systems that we have created. Engineers are not trained to consider these implications. Planners are.

Now God help us if planners ran the world. While engineers will ultimately bankrupt us, planners would bankrupt us just as fast and, in the process, get absolutely nothing done. What these two professions need is to work more closely together. That means engineers becoming more humble and planners becoming more knowledgeable (and coherent).

Until then, it will be difficult to consider ASCE's recommendation to "double-down" on the infrastructure spending that got us into this mess as anything more than a brazen campaign for self-enrichment.

(Note: ASCE's call for $2.2 trillion comes after 50-years of massive infrastructure spending and at a point in time when, at every level of government, we have tremendous infrastructure-related debt already in place. Fifty years of spending, large public debt and still $2.2 trillion in need - is further proof needed that this system is not working? We are not going to ever have $2.2 trillion to spend on infrastructure catch-up. That means the only solution is to find ways to make better use of our existing infrastructure investments. That is another blog entry, but I felt compelled to raise the issue before ending this one.)