Launch Slideshow

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Switching Gears

Switching Gears

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    From left: Project Manager Michael Crino of Michael Baker Engineering Inc. worked with Deputy Project Manager Magdalena Maliszewska and Project Manager Michael Padillo of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to map one of the most complex sewer systems in the nation. Photo: Ken Gabrielsen/Getty Images

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    A steady partnershipThe percentage of departments that use AEC firms remains high. Source: PUBLIC WORKS

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    Helping outEconomic developments affect which projects departments pursue. Source: PUBLIC WORKS

The shift in how firms are used also depends on the infrastructure sector.

Road and bridge construction and surveying and mapping remain among the top three types of projects for which departments seek outside expertise. Wastewater/ stormwater treatment dropped somewhat, while pipeline construction and rehabilitation increased nearly 3%.

During the housing boom, water and sewer authorities spent a portion of their budgets each year to meet new service requirements. Today those departments are spending approximately the same amount but pushing the dollars toward rehabilitation rather than new pipeline construction and installation.

“I expected a slowdown in the wastewater/stormwater category because fewer subdivisions are being built, so you don't see that push we saw in 2002 through 2006,” Simonson says.

THE DOMINO EFFECT

Of those departments that will forge ahead with projects before the end of the year, most plan to use AEC firms for design, but even that number is dropping. That figure has ranged from 53% to 57%, but this year it's just below 43%.

If there's nothing to build, there's nothing to design, and analysts expect 2009 to be a tough year for construction. Between the housing slump, declining gas tax revenues, and general economic malaise, FMI's Bridgers expects 2008 construction volumes across most sectors to fall between 2% and 5%.

“It won't hurt much because most contractors have backlogs, and they won't really feel the pain until 2009,” he says. As demand for new infrastructure decreases, infrastructure departments should expect to feel those effects as well. But with the nation's aging infrastructure demanding attention, maintenance should remain steady.

“We expect the recession to be short and light, but it will linger in the Northeast and Midwest and will rebound faster in the Southeast and Southwest,” Bridgers says.

The increased reliance on private sector involvement in planning and building public infrastructure raises a philosophical question: How many public-private projects will be built over the next decade? “The private sector leverages its infrastructure assets against other activities, whereas the public sector doesn't have any other way of raising money,” Pagano says.

Today the public is more accepting of private sector involvement. “It's similar to a century ago, when infrastructure was a joint venture in the building of canals, turnpikes, and railroads. We have a long tradition of that,” Pagano says. “I see more private sector involvement in the coming years.”