Is it time for the U.S. to begin flying the private skies?

Shifting air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to a private partnership is part of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget that was introduced last week. Critics say it isn’t a good idea because of the lack of congressional oversight. In 2015, members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Subcommittee on Aviation were requested to review the causes of recent disruptions and whether the FAA possesses the ability to manage air traffic control crises that arise within the National Airspace System. In January, the Office of Inspector General released an audit report that stated “although FAA has taken steps to improve its operational contingency plans, significant work remains to mitigate the effects of major system disruptions.”

One of the examples of these disruptions provided in the 23-page audit occurred in 2014 when a communications contractor assigned to the Aurora FAA radar center set fire to the center, grounding more than 2,000 flights in Chicago. The contractor allegedly planned  to “take out” the center and kill himself. The contractor was charged with setting fire to and damaging an air navigation facility. The audit stated that the “FAA’s air traffic facilities are not yet fully prepared to respond effectively to major system disruptions, in part because of a lack of necessary controller training for these types of emergency events.” Congress will debate the possible change as part of renewing the reauthorization of FAA funding, whose current spending authority expires on Sept. 30.

But, privatizing airport operations has been flying along at full speed since 1997 when Congress established the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program. The pilot was initiated to explore privatization to a maximum of five airports as a means of generating access to various sources of private capital for airport improvement and development. In 2012, the Reauthorization Act increased the number of airports from five to 10. As of April 2017, there are four airports in the privatization program: Hendry County Airglades Airport in Florida, Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in Puerto Rico, St. Louis Lambert International Airport in Missouri and Westchester County Airport in New York.  Airport privatization is nothing new outside of the U.S. The British Airports Authority was privatized in 1987 and airport facilities have been sold and leased in numerous countries, including Australia, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, India, Mexico, New Zealand and Peru.

Once an airport is granted approval by the FAA to seek privatization, a bid is requested from private entities to develop proposals that include details of how they will develop and operate the airport or airport system over a long-term concession period, given their experience and expertise.  Infrastructure experts and advocates of public-private partnerships (P3) tend to see airports as the ideal candidates for the model’s application, because there are so many potential sources of revenue.

According to a Congressional Research Service study released last year, interest is lacking on P3s based on a several-year-long application process, restrictions on how much airports can increase rates and charges, and tax privileges for public bonds that make long-term financing costlier for the private sector.

The San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín airport is an example of a successful P3 and the facility has stuck with the airport privatization pilot program the longest. It entered into it in 2009, as a way to revive a lagging investment and help chip away at the $800 million of debt held by the Puerto Rico Ports Authority. Some cities and states are testing out their options on whether it would be feasible to become privatized.

In June 2014, Illinois officials purchased the 288-acre Bult Field with its 5,000-foot runway on Kedzie Avenue in Monee for $34 million, which was within the footprint established for a 5,800-acre airport. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) requested information from private businesses last month to see if any were interested in developing the South Suburban Airport in a P3, noting that the state was not interested in spending public money on the project. Six private firms have expressed interest in building and operating the airport. IDOT is now producing an Airport Master Plan for FAA review and approval.

Most airports remain under the ownership of a state, county or city, and several are attempting a new evolution in airports. The Tampa International Airport in Florida plans to spend more than $2 billion by 2026 on improvements and new amenities in the terminals and around the airport property as part of its master plan overhaul. Airports wont be just a place to park, get a snack and board a flight anymore. These transportation facilities are adding new development around their structures so people can work, sleep, dine and shop, even if they aren’t taking a flight. Tampa’s $543 million phase two of the Tampa’s International Airport’s master plan includes a 17-acre commercial development for two hotels, an eight-story, 240,000-square-foot office building, a 20,000-square-foot retail strip, a gas station with a convenience store and possibly a pet hotel. It will be located next to the economy parking garage and accessible to the main terminal through the airport’s people mover train, which will be completed later this year.

The Port of Bellingham in Washington owns and operates the Bellingham International Airport (BLI), which is a small non-hub airport serving the city of Bellingham, County of Whatcom, County of Skagit, County of Snohomish and the Lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada. BLI serves a market of more than 1.4 million potential customers within a 60 mile radius. Since 2004, BLI has experienced significant growth in passenger enplanements resulting in the airport needing to update its’ growth projections multiple times to meet FAA requirements.  In 2014, the airport completed a $38.5 million terminal expansion project, expanding its main passenger terminal from 27,000 square feet to 104,000 square feet. Future projects include additional commercial aircraft parking and the long-term development of commercial facilities. The Port of Bellingham, Wash. is requesting statements of interest and qualifications from professional firms experienced in the retention and development of commercial airline air service for BLI. The deadline for proposals is June 23.

The City and Borough of Juneau, Alaska is requesting proposals from qualified consultants to provide a design for Taxiway-A rehabilitation and Taxiway-E realignment at the Juneau International Airport.

A study was performed on the airport and recommendations for several improvements were made that include the following: rehabilitate pavement on Taxiway-A, reconstruct shoulder pavement on Taxiway-A, rehabilitate taxiway edge lighting system, widen former Taxiway-H (for aircraft circulation during construction), replace Jordan Creek culvert beneath Taxiway-A, modify airfield drainage, realign Taxiway-E and geothermal pavement clearing. The airport has submitted an application for an Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grant to the FAA for design of the project. Future grant applications will be submitted for construction of the project. Proposals are due by June 21.

Infrastructure Week, BRIDGE Act, Trump’s budget blueprint… it’s been a busy month for infrastructure!

May 15-19 was Infrastructure Week and several events were held in communities throughout the country to support building for a better America and to elevate the importance of infrastructure and the impact it has on everyone who uses transportation, water, energy, ports, public buildings and more. Over the course of five days, state governors signed proclamations and partner organizations hosted events on subjects like public-private partnerships, smart cities, water management, supply chains and autonomous vehicles.

In March the  American Society of Civil Engineers released their Infrastructure Report Card and America earned a “D+.” Panels, presentations and congressional meetings were held in Washington, D.C. to discuss this overall grade and strategies needed to obtain successful goals for the future. The weeklong event began with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao who spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and outlined President Donald Trump’s infrastructure vision. Chao shared that Trump “has made revitalizing, repairing and rebuilding our country’s infrastructure one of his top priorities.” She said that the administration is prepared to include $200 billion in direct federal funds and that “these funds will be used to leverage $1 trillion in infrastructure investments over ten years.”

Chao added that there is no one-size-fits-all revenue model when it comes to infrastructure projects. “Toll roads, for example, may work well in urban areas, where they generate consistent revenue because of high demand,” said Chao. “But lower demand on rural roads may not generate enough revenue to repay private investment. This Administration is committed to an infrastructure package that addresses the needs of the entire country, urban and rural.” Read more on Chao’s address on infrastructure here.

Local Chambers of Commerce, unions, utilities, mayors, governors, legislators, policy organizations, trade associations, manufacturers, retailers and more came together to share a common theme during Infrastructure Week: “Across America It’s Time To Build.”

Many roads, bridges and other systems are reaching the end of their useful life. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, almost four in 10 of America’s 614,387 bridges are over 50 years old. Around 9.1 percent of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2016 and 188 million trips are taken daily over deficient bridges. In March, the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur, Calif., collapsed after heavy rains damaged the span on Highway 1. Over 400 residents were stranded after the bridge split the tourist area in two. Building a new highway bridge is expected to take six to nine months.

The average age of the 90,580 dams in the country is 56 years. As our population grows and development continues, the overall number of high-hazard potential dams is increasing, with the number climbing to nearly 15,500 in 2016. Due to the lack of investment, the number of deficient high-hazard potential dams has also climbed to an estimated 2,170 or more. It is estimated that it will require an investment of nearly $45 billion to repair aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams. Prior to the 2017 Oroville Dam failure in California, there was the Ka Loko Reservoir Dam burst in March 2006 that killed seven people in Kauai, Hawaii. The dam unleashed 400 million gallons of water onto the island. The dam’s poor maintenance, lack of inspection and illegal modifications were blamed for its failure.

The American Society for Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card highlights a $105 billion investment gap for water and wastewater infrastructure from 2016-2025. A report issued this month by the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that 27 million people, or one in every 12 Americans, were served by a drinking water system with health-based violations. The report exposes health-based violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as violations for improper water monitoring and reporting, at more than 18,000 community water systems across the nation. These federal drinking water rules are intended to protect against about 100 contaminants, such as toxic chemicals, bacteria and metals like lead that can cause health impacts like cancer, birth defects and cognitive impairments.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranked the U.S. as 19th in overall infrastructure out of 148 countries surveyed. Rattling off statistics shows the shortfall, but the question many asked during infrastructure week’s roundtable discussions is what can be done to help address America’s infrastructure deficit?

Last week Sens. Mark Warner and Roy Blunt reintroduced a bipartisan bill to create a financing authority that would provide loans and loan guarantees to help states and localities better leverage private funds to repair, maintain and build the nation’s infrastructure.

The Building and Renewing Infrastructure for Development and Growth in Employment Act, or BRIDGE Act, is being touted as a vehicle to help tackle dwindling federal investment in maintaining and improving the country’s transportation network, water and wastewater systems and energy infrastructure. To help address this funding shortfall for the nation’s transportation, water and energy infrastructure, the BRIDGE Act will establish an independent, nonpartisan financing authority to complement existing U.S. infrastructure funding. The authority would provide loans and loan guarantees to help states and localities fund the most economically viable road, bridge, rail, port, water, sewer and other significant infrastructure projects.  The authority would receive initial seed funding of up to $10 billion, which could incentivize private sector investment and make possible $300 billion or more in total project investment. The authority is structured in a way to make it self-sustaining over time without requiring additional federal appropriations.

This week, Congress received an early outline of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure initiative from a budget blueprint released for fiscal year 2018. The 62-page document, titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” calls for $200 billion in federal funding over the next 10 years to overhaul the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and waterways. The $200 billion isn’t necessarily meant to fund projects directly, but instead to entice states, localities and private companies to inject $800 billion more into infrastructure funding. That would total $1 trillion, the infrastructure spending figure Trump called for during his presidential campaign.

The budget also suggests a removal of the $15 billion cap on tax-exempt bonds issued to private builders by the Department of Transportation and removing the current restriction on commercial rest areas on the roadways. The plan also doesn’t fully remove the interstate tolling ban, but allows states “to assess their transportation needs and weigh the relative merits of tolling assets.”

Congress hasn’t passed a budget in several years. Instead, they have passed resolutions that continue prior-year funding levels over short-term periods. The next fiscal year begins in October.

Aging waste and sewer systems causing sinkhole effect

A hole in the ground can be a bad thing for rolling wheels and moving feet. These burrows, potholes, divots, manholes, ground tunnels and ditches could cause issues if they are overlooked, but when the Earth suddenly gives way and a large land-mass collapses, the level of danger and damage can be much more detrimental and harder to avoid. These sinking sensations are called sinkholes and they can happen naturally or with help from humans, and the cost of repair can run into the millions for states, cities and counties.

A natural sinkhole occurs in “karst terrain,” which means the type of rock, called evaporites, below the land surface can naturally be dissolved by groundwater circulating through them. When rain water moves down through the soil, these types of rock begin to dissolve and spaces and caverns develop underground. When a sinkhole occurs, it is normally massive because the land will stay intact for a period of time until the underground spaces get too big and there is not enough support anymore for the top layer of land. The ground could collapse suddenly or cave in gradually over time. Sinkholes occur more frequently after intense rainfall, but there is some evidence that drought can cause this phenomenon. Areas where water levels have lowered suddenly are more prone to collapse formation.

The most damage from natural sinkholes tends to occur in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. In 2014, a 40-foot-wide, 20-foot-deep natural sinkhole opened in Bowling Green, Ky., in the middle of the National Corvette Museum, swallowing eight vintage cars. In 1994, Polk County, Fla., had a 15-story sinkhole open up beneath an 80-million-ton pile of toxic industrial waste. Cleaning up around 90 percent of the county’s drinking water ran into the millions.

Man-made sinkholes caused by a human, or anthroprogenic, can occur in any state under the wrong conditions. There have been more than 20 ground collapses in the last two decades in Asheville, N.C. Nearly all of these land cave-ins were caused by underground pipe failures. One of the sinkholes has been gradually swallowing up two homes, forcing tenants out and making them unlivable. In December, a $5.6 million stormwater utility fund paid for annually by Asheville property owners was used to replace 2,500 feet of pipes to drain away rain water.

In Michigan, a sewer pipe collapse  led to a 100-foot wide by 200-foot long sinkhole in Fraser. The December 2016 incident put 11 municipalities that pay for the sewer system on the hook to cover repairs.  The sinkhole forced evacuations of 22 homes. Occupants in 19 of the homes have returned, but two of them have been condemned and demolished. Repairs are estimated to cost around $75 million and the Washington Township, who owns just under 3 percent of the system, will put forth $2 million towards the repair cost.  The city of Sterling Heights is protesting against its $22 million portion of the tab. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley announced that a $3 million state grant would help repair the sinkhole. The funding supplemented a $2 million grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

In January, a sinkhole in Cheltenham, Pa., swallowed a vehicle, a tree, a driveway, sidewalks, part of two front lawns and eventually claimed two homes. Emergency responders were unsure whether the sinkhole was due to natural causes or from a water main brake.

In February, a water main break flooded several streets in Hoboken, N.J., causing an elementary school to shut down and forming a sinkhole that swallowed an entire sports utility vehicle.

Last week a 13-foot by 20-foot sinkhole, likely caused by a failed irrigation pipe, shut down both lanes of traffic on 11th Avenue in Hanford, Calif. Old corrugated metal pipes that have rusted away have caused other road sinkholes in the Hanford area in recent months. A 30-year-old metal culvert passing under a county highway and old roads caused two road collapses a couple of weeks ago in Wausau, Wis.

Sewer pipes can become compromised in different ways over time. Small cracks or fractures can occur in old pipes, or misalignments can occur at a connection point. These openings can be tiny but still allow small amounts of dirt to sift into the pipe. That dirt is carried away with the wastewater, but over time, enough soil from above the pipe is flushed away that a hollow space can form above the pipe and below the street surface. If enough soil quietly sifts into the sewer, and a big enough void forms below the street’s concrete, the surface may no longer be able to support its own weight, and collapses into that subterranean space. This can happen suddenly, or gradually.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that at least 23,000 to 75,000 sanitary sewer overflow events occur in the United States each year and that around $271 billion is needed for wastewater infrastructure over the next 25 years. While the federal government provides some funding through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 95 percent of spending on water infrastructure is made at the local level. Cities and towns across the country report that complying with federal wastewater and stormwater regulations represents some of their costliest capital infrastructure projects. The majority of treatment facility expenses are supported by rate payers, however rising utility bills can present affordability issues. In a 2014 survey of the nation’s 50 largest cities, average monthly sewer bills ranged from $12.72 in Memphis to $149.35 in Atlanta.

The opportunities for water and sewage system repairs and replacements won’t be slowing down anytime soon for states like Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board recently approved a $27.36 million loan the city can use to fund wastewater and stormwater infrastructure projects and purchase equipment needed to maintain their system. The low-interest loan will be financed through the Oklahoma Clean Water Revolving Fund, a program administered at the federal level by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in partnership with the states.

City councilors in March approved the long-range infrastructure plan, which includes the repair or replacement of infrastructure that is 100 years old or older. Planned sewer and stormwater improvements include repairs to several sewage lift stations, upgrades to collection lines within certain basins, wastewater treatment plant improvements and Civitan Basin stormwater drainage improvements. Most of those projects address problems identified in a consent order issued by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality in response to past violations.

In Pennsylvania, an analysis of Carlisle Borough’s water distribution system recommends the borough begin a replacement program on its 86 miles of water mains that could cost up to $2 million per year and take decades to complete. The borough took over the water system during the 1940s. It has no records for the system prior to the acquisition. That means the age of some of the mains is unknown, but could date back more than 100 years. The study recommended that 1.5 to 2 miles of mains be replaced yearly. At that rate, it would take 40-55 years to replace all of the mains.

An independent study performed on the water and sewer system in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found that the city’s system to deliver drinking water from the tap, and to carry away sewage, has aging parts that could fail at any time. This 106-year-old city could be looking at $1.4 billion worth of repairs.  In November, voters countywide defeated a sales tax increase for improvements that could have helped cities like Fort Lauderdale rebuild aging systems. The water-sewer system serves hundreds of thousands, reaching beyond Fort Lauderdale’s borders. The city paid $1.9 million for a consultant to review the water and sewer system. The review was completed in April, but information has not been disclosed on the findings.

Natural power projects are picking up wind throughout the United States

There are currently 9,025 megawatts (MW) of wind projects under construction in the United States and an additional 11,952 MW in advanced development, according to the Wind Energy Association. Texas, the country’s top state for wind power capacity, was the leading location for wind installations in the first quarter, followed by Kansas, New Mexico, North Carolina and Michigan. The U.S. wind industry installed 2,000 MW of capacity in the first quarter, nearly four times the amount installed in the same period last year, as developers race to capture a federal tax credit that is gradually being phased out. The federal production tax credit for wind projects does not expire until 2020.
Starting this year, however, the credit’s value will drop by 20 percent each year for projects that start construction from 2017 through 2019. About a quarter of the megawatts installed in the first quarter are contracted to buyers outside the utility industry, including the U.S. Army and other businesses. A landmark state law signed last summer in Massachusetts will make it the nation’s biggest state commitment to offshore wind to date. Three companies have their eye on the bid to buy long-term contracts for at least 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power in the next decade. Companies have to solicit bids jointly by June 30 for the first project, which must provide at least 400 MW of power. Not until June will interested parties get a glimpse of a timeline for the bidding process. The $113 million state-funded terminal spans 26 acres of waterfront property at 16 Blackmer St., just inside the hurricane barrier.
For the first wind project, large turbine components would probably be shipped to the Marine Commerce Terminal, where they would be assembled and perhaps painted. Blades would likely be affixed to the hub at sea and each turbine would have an elevator inside and would require a significant amount of electrical work. Behind the hub of a wind turbine is the nacelle, which houses the generator and sometimes space for a worker to stay overnight. It’s estimated that permitting and financing for the first project would last into 2019. Construction could start around 2021, and if the timeline goes as expected for future rounds to bring the state up to 1,600 MW construction on the second project could start around 2024.