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FEATURE ARTICLE
ASFE Advocates Infrastructure Condition Signage
October 2007

Bridges and tunnels should be subject to condition-advisory signage posted far enough ahead of a structure to permit people to avoid those that pose more risk than they’re comfortable with. So says James K. Johnston, P.E., R.B.P., president of ASFE/The Best People on Earth, a not-for-profit association of “earth engineering” and infrastructure design firms whose members employ an estimated 125,000 technical professionals.

“Governments have long ago gotten themselves into the warning business, either by warning people directly or requiring other entities to do so. And that’s a good thing,” Mr. Johnston said. “Governments require certificates of inspection for just about every elevator in the country. Local governments issue air-quality advisories. State governments require cocktail lounges to warn people that alcohol consumption can impair their ability to drive a car. The federal government requires distillers to do the same, and it issues its own warnings about terrorist threats.

“Federal, state, and local governments know exactly what the condition of their infrastructure is, or at least the date of last inspection, review, or test. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) documents conditions in the report card it issues, but it’s not the kind of thing most people would go hunting for, which is why the Surgeon General warns us about cigarettes on every pack and not on the Internet. The most recent ASCE report card gave America’s infrastructure a D, by the way, and recent events make it easy to understand why. People need to know how much they can trust the roads and bridges they use every day. That’s why the government agency responsible for a given bridge or tunnel should put up a sign indicating when the structure was last inspected and what the risk of collapse might be, using a simple color-warning scheme, like green, green-yellow, yellow, yellow-red, and red. The same applies to earth dams, levees, retaining walls, and similar structures. Likewise, local governments should let homeowners know about the condition of their water and sewer systems. Most people have no idea that 3.5 million Americans are exposed to E. coli every year because of sewer system leaks and other malfunctions, and that’s according to [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]. Thousands of those people get sick and some die.”

According to Mr. Johnston, the managing partner of the PMK Group (Cranford, NJ), “Until a headline- grabbing tragedy occurs, people take infrastructure safety for granted. If governments informed people about actual conditions, through point-of-use signage and other appropriate means, chances are people would let their elected representatives at all levels know about their concerns and the need for funding to repair and replace aging facilities. Infrastructure safety has been swept under a rug because legislators don’t want to increase taxes for something that doesn’t appear to be urgent. But conditions create far more urgency than people realize. People need that realization. Given the choice between paying a few dollars more in taxes every year, or spending less on taxes at the expense of personal safety, I have to believe most people would vote for personal safety.”

Mr. Johnston said that “politicians and regulators seem to have adopted an ‘if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it’ attitude, which is not of itself wrong. The problem is defining ‘broke’ to mean ‘failure’ rather than ‘in need of repair or improvement.’ We have 10,000 miles of levees in this country, and most of them were designed to protect highly urbanized areas. The [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers says that 122 of those levees are at risk of failing. That sounds like ‘broke” to me! At the very least, a responsible government entity should put a condition-advisory sign on every levee, on every flood wall, on every earth dam, and so on. And what about airports? The State Department warns us about foreign airports that are unsafe because of terrorist threats. Shouldn’t the [Federal Aviation Administration] warn us about domestic airports that are unsafe because of runways that are too short or too crowded, or because of antiquated air traffic control equipment?”

According to Mr. Johnston, compliance with a mandated condition-advisory signs program could easily be demanded by the federal government, by making federal financing and cost-sharing contingent upon states’ and localities’ provision of consumer guidance. “As recent events have demonstrated all too clearly, what we don’t know can hurt us,” Mr. Johnston said. ##


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