RJN Group

Trenchless Technology Point of View: Closing the Underground Infrastructure Gap: Increased Funding, Alternative Project Delivery and Education

Allan Hollenbeck RJN Group


My entire 40-year career has focused on underground infrastructure engineering. Each issue of Trenchless Technology reminds me of how far we have come in the development and availability of new technologies and alternatives for the installation and rehabilitation of underground infrastructure.


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However, the adoption and implementation of these advances can be greatly impacted by controlling factors — funding sources, procurement restrictions, and buy-in of public officials — driving the ever widening underground infrastructure gap.

Increased Funding

The single largest factor limiting the closing of the underground infrastructure gap is low water and sewer user fees. For too long, sewer and water (and occasionally storm water) user fees have been moderated by local elected officials and often treated as a discretionary “tax” instead of a sustainable fee for service. Spending by state and local governments has dropped from three percent of the gross national product (GDP) in the late 1960s to less than two percent in 2015. Currently, the total non-defense infrastructure investment is 93 percent for the state and local level vs. only 7 percent from federal programs.

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There will always be a role for federal funding of underground infrastructure improvements, particularly to jump start programs after a long period of local and federal underinvestment. However, the most efficient underground infrastructure programs I have been involved in have not relied on any federal grants or loans. Billions of dollars of construction grant projects were completed during the “heyday” of the USEPA construction grant programs in the 1970s and 1980s. Even so, far too many communities used available grant money to fund improvements and then failed to adopt adequate longer-term funding sources to sustain the design life of their underground infrastructure.

We are now left with an aging underground infrastructure with increasing percentages of assets that are beyond their design life. There is also increasing evidence that underground infrastructure assets do not deteriorate on a linear curve. Asset failure can be moderate until it reaches the failure inflection point resulting in a rapid increase in expensive emergency repairs which only fosters the widening of the funding gap. Sophisticated management tools to plan multi-year risk-based rehabilitation and replacement programs are only as good as the funding provided to implement the plans.

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Alternative Project Delivery

For years, public sector underground infrastructure projects have been delivered with the “design-bid-build” process in which owners, design engineers, and contractors work somewhat independently of each other, often with differing objectives. Under design-bid-build procurement, separate companies are hired for both the design and the construction of a project often at different times. Rarely are they operating from the same point of view. This not only slows down the project’s completion but also makes it difficult to quickly resolve any constructability, scheduling or budgetary issues. Additionally, selection of the “low bidder” does not always result in the lowest construction cost or life cycle cost. New technologies for “no dig” construction require experienced contactors with training programs and relevant expertise. The “low bidder” many times comes up short on both of these important criteria.

Alternative delivery (Design-Build, Construction-Manager-at-Risk, Public Private Partnerships, etc.) differs from design-bid-build in its overall organization and execution. Rather than there being an isolated relationship between the project owner, design engineer, and the contractor, the owner’s design and construction groups collaborate, working together at the same time on the same team from the start of the project. In many cases, the expertise of the contractor provides critical insights when vetting design alternatives. Alternative delivery is also typically a faster way to deliver successful projects. Project owners are more prone to meet their goals from the start since quick and clear communication and collaboration between the owner, design engineer, and contractor ensures accountability and unity of objectives. This project delivery team can quickly identify and resolve problems early in the process, ensuring that deadlines are met, budgets are not exceeded and goals of the owner are achieved.

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Many public sector clients are receptive to pursuing alternative delivery methods. However, especially with an owner’s first alternative delivery project, there is some resistance, based mainly on lack of comfort with change.

Education of Elected Officials and Public

Increased funding and greater utilization of alternative procurement will require even more education of elected officials, non-engineers in municipal government, and the public. There are currently only two engineers in the United States Congress in comparison to 303 lawyers and businessmen. This ratio is only slightly better at the state and local government level. Education, therefore, must come from within our profession and be communicated in terms that the typical elected official can relate to.

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The extent that our profession can “take back” our role in these public policy discussions will ultimately have a huge impact on higher levels of federal and local funding as well as the use of alternative procurement methods. Part of this role needs to go beyond talking to ourselves. The political process seems to revolve around “hot” issues. Unlike many other divisive issues, infrastructure reinvestment typically receives consistent public support. Where it fails is when the value of the proposed improvements and the consequences of the “no action” alternative are not clearly communicated to elected officials and the public.

Alan Hollenbeck, P.E., BCEE is president/CEO of RJN Group Inc. a Trenchless Technology Top 50 Design Firm specializing in collection systems engineering headquartered in Wheaton, Illinois.

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