Improving infrastructure is crucial to Texas’ growth

Photo by Shelby Knowles

Sitting in traffic isn’t just frustrating; it’s costly.

On average, a driver in Houston loses $1,490 annually in extra fuel costs and lost time due to traffic congestion, according to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard recently released by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and INRIX, a big-data technology company. Dallas-Fort Worth drivers lose $1,185, and for Austinites, it’s $1,159.  

The reason? Lagging replacement, repair and expansion of aging highways, bridges and roads. 

Our nation’s infrastructure is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Traffic jams, water main breaks and power failures have become more than just daily inconveniences, and our economic wellbeing and safety are at risk.

The state of Texas expects to spend more than $23 billion over the next two years to address our aging transportation needs, and millions more on other types of infrastructure statewide. Because of the urgent and overwhelming need, the Texas A&M University System is focusing on infrastructure renewal as a top research priority, and will address problems plaguing our fragile system of roads, bridges, pipelines and electrical grids.

To this end — thanks to the foresight of the 84th Texas Legislature — the Texas A&M System will construct the Center for Infrastructure Renewal, a 200,000-square-foot research and training building. This state-of-the-art facility will house experts from different disciplines working together to address critical research questions, with the common goal of developing new processes, practices and materials that require less time to construct, are less expensive and will last longer.

In its latest report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned this nation’s infrastructure an overall grade of D+, and estimated the cost to each American family was $3,100 per year in disposable income. 

There are roughly 240,000 water main breaks per year in the U.S., one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient and we are relying on a rapidly aging electrical grid, according to the engineering study. 

The Texas A&M System is uniquely qualified to help the state address this challenge. The new center will be linked to both the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute — two state agencies that have been addressing infrastructure problems for decades.

The new center will also partner with the largest engineering program in the state, the College of Engineering at Texas A&M, to educate and train the workforce of the future. Through collaboration with the construction industry, along with the generous support from the Legislature, the center will be fully operational by 2018.

Our intent is for the center’s researchers to put their results into practice as quickly as possible by directly training construction professionals at the new facility. 

Today, Texas spends more than $1.5 billion annually on asphalt for highways and roads. If we can develop methods to use more recycled asphalt for roads, early estimates indicate the state could save millions per year on this expense. The development of new faster-drying concrete could result in accelerated construction, saving time and money.

Though the challenge before us is daunting, we see a great opportunity for innovation: What new materials can we develop that perform better at a lower cost? How can we evaluate the safety of our infrastructure with real-time testing that prevents the catastrophic loss of life?  How can we reduce traffic congestion during replacement and repair of major highways?

The answers will direct us toward a resilient and reliable infrastructure to support economic growth in Texas and enhance the quality of life for all citizens.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

M. Katherine Banks

Vice chancellor and dean of engineering at Texas A&M University