NEWS

Building New Infrastructure, Damaging the Old

10 Dec 2021, Posted in All Posts, Blog Posts
new infrastructure

Constructing new infrastructure, buildings, or even planting trees all require breaking ground. These excavation projects use shovels, augers, jackhammers, backhoes, and other excavation equipment to scrape away earth and make way for new foundations, new pipelines, and new facilities. The problem is that this often threatens the subsurface infrastructure already in place.

The high correlation between construction activity and excavation damage is well established. In fact, despite cutting edge technology and data-proven best practices, excavation activities continue to strike pipelines, electrical lines, cable and internet lines, and far more. Even though an entire collaborative industry and process known as Damage Prevention exists that should eliminate or greatly reduce the likelihood of any damage, year over year, more damages are occurring.

This is intuitive in some sense – there is more subsurface infrastructure than ever! More pipelines (2.8 million miles!) more telecommunications and internet lines, and more homes and businesses needing electricity, water, sewage, and other services. At the same time, technology has advanced, mapping and GPS are accurate to within inches, and the Internet gives us a virtual space to communicate and collaborate with other parties who can help prevent damage.

In a perfect world, this would work by having an excavator call 811 or make a subsurface locate request online, then locate technicians would arrive and mark the ground for any and all underground infrastructure, then send over a package of digital material for the excavator to see alongside the physical marks on the ground. These could be digital photographs, ticket information, a locator manifest, and even maps of the infrastructure itself that the pipeline operator or utility holds. When the excavator goes to break ground, they would be equipped with multiple levels of information and can dig confidently knowing the space beneath their power tools is nothing but dirt.

Unfortunately, due to inefficiency, waste, miscommunication, and error, the system does not work this flawlessly on every dig. Since 2015, excavation damages have trended higher and higher. Over half a million damages occurred in 2019 – that is natural gas pipelines, electricity, water, cable, Internet, and other services severed. These affected millions of people through explosions, leaks, evacuations, service interruptions, lost productivity, traffic delays, and far more.

The total cost of all this damage: over $30 billion. Every year.

 

These tens of billions of dollars in economic harm are avoidable. But with the known correlation between construction activity and excavation damage, and the trend getting worse in spite of technology and best practices, it is clear something within the system is broken and needs fixing.

If we are to avoid these hundreds of thousands of damage events and tens of billions of dollars in costs, we must implement systemic reforms. The status quo is leading to more damage, but the status quo itself will be changing soon – and not for the better.

Congress recently enacted into law a major $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. While investment in infrastructure is needed, this influx of over a trillion dollars will push forcefully on construction spending and activity, which following the data-proven correlation, will create more damage than ever before. Whether it is by error, miscommunication, or even cutting corners, the contractors and construction workers breaking ground, building, and maintaining America’s infrastructure will end up damaging, severing, and harming critical life-sustaining infrastructure already in place.

Two obvious solutions stand ready to be deployed – each with a data-driven, field-tested track record of decreasing damage by half or more! Enhanced Positive Response (EPR) has been shown to reduce damage by as much as 67 percent. It has been praised by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), its members, federal agencies, and other stakeholders. White-lining (or pre-marking) an excavation site is similarly praised and validated by stakeholders, including the National Transportation Safety Board, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, CGA, individual states, and more. In both its physical on-site form and electronic or virtual forms, white-lining is another massive step to achieve clarity and reduce miscommunication or error.

Congress and various federal agencies with jurisdiction to affect the excavation damage prevention space must act. By enacting over a trillion dollars in new infrastructure spending, Congress and the President have added fuel to a fire that they must now address. This should be done in close collaboration with industry and states, but action is essential, and it must happen now.

The current system has issues. The current trends predict worsening damage rates and costs. Spending has been approved that will exacerbate damage trends and costs. Current technology is ready to resolve these issues. So, before we build out our infrastructure, we must protect the infrastructure we already have in place under our feet.

 

Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy

 

The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.