September 12, 2007

Is our engineering rank slipping in the world?

  • There is a funding shortage for infrastructure, our high school students are getting lower math and science scores, and we have a confrontational approach to design and construction.
    W&H Pacific


    It was an honor serving as chairman of the American Council of Engineering Companies. In that position I had the unique opportunity to visit projects, engineering organizations and government officials both nationally and internationally. As a result, I have several general observations to share regarding our engineering profession and its ability to support the development of transportation systems.

    Improving competency

    American engineering schools and graduate engineers are clearly some of the best in the world. However, we face a number of challenges to maintain the current level of expertise. We have a national responsibility to raise the level of technical competency of students in our public education system. Our high school students rank low in math and science competency relative to most developed countries. Consequently, there are fewer applicants entering engineering schools relative to many other countries, and many of those who do enter are not well prepared for the academic challenges.

    For a nation that has led the world in space exploration, technological innovation and Nobel Laureates, we have fallen seriously behind and should be alarmed.

    Global learning

    We need to do a much better job of capturing creative solutions from around the world. With integrated transportation systems, we are far behind much of the industrialized world, and even some of the developing nations. For example, in most major European cities when you arrive at an international airport, rail and bus stations are collocated, making it is easy to transfer to a local subway, bus or intercity train system. We can and should do a much better job integrating our transportation systems.

    We can also learn more from others about aesthetic infrastructure design. In France, freeway bridges have design elements such as full-length planter boxes along the sides, adding beauty, greenery and interest to the roadway. Long-lifespan projects such as bridges should be visually attractive and enhance our driving experience. In the last several years we have done a much better job of designing attractive bridges, but aesthetics should play a larger role in roadway and bridge design.

    A cooperative approach

    Many countries have a much more cooperative relationship between design engineers and governments that encourages creative design and innovation. The legal system here often forces a confrontational approach to design and construction. In order to avoid lawsuits, creative design is often stifled and construction approaches are too conservative. This combination leads to increased costs that drain resources needed for actual problem resolution.

    Recently, I observed roadway repair work in Germany and Britain. Amazingly, crews completed the work during traffic hours without flaggers — just warning signs. As a result of putting responsibility for safety with the driver, and not the government, these and other countries in Europe and Asia have more funds to spend on actual roadway improvements.

    Transportation funding

    Finally and perhaps most importantly, we need to view adequate investment in infrastructure as a long-term investment in our community and nation. Infrastructure needs are not as politically popular as other more visible programs, and consequently resources are redirected from needed infrastructure improvements. The highly integrated transportation systems you find in Europe and Japan are not free. Gasoline averages $5-$8 per gallon in these countries. The increased costs are largely user fees that support the transportation systems, but are not currently available to us for our infrastructure needs.

    I believe that many of us would forego the second or even a first car if we had an effective mass transportation system. The costs of a second car far outweigh the additional fuel taxes paid. Notwithstanding this approach to transportation funding, the revenues generated to maintain and develop our transportation systems have been lagging for a number of years and need to catch up to match the system needs.

    As a profession and society, we can do better. We have the people, skills and resources to keep our nation at the forefront of technical innovation and leadership. We just need to do a better job of clarifying what is important to us as a society and then prioritize the resources to achieve our goals. Engineers have a major role in verbalizing these complex technical issues in a manner that is clear and understandable so that our citizens can make informed decisions.

    Jeff Daggett is co-founder and former CEO of W&H Pacific, a consulting design firm headquartered in Bothell. He served as 2006-07 ACEC national chairman.

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