The Building Tradesman Newspaper

One remedy for labor’s ills: Rebuilding nation’s infrastructure

In the midst of the July heat wave, some Oklahoma City commuters got a nasty surprise as they drove down Interstate 44 one morning: an expansion joint on a 36-year-old bridge buckled.
Several vehicles were damaged as they drove across the broken joint before repair crews could close off the damage and begin repairs. Fortunately, aside from the damaged cars and the traffic delays caused by the repairs, there were no other ill effects – at least at that moment.

That was a loud wake-up call, however, for any elected official who chose to hear it. As NewsOK reported, it was not just the heat, but “the age of the bridge” that was a factor in the buckling incident.

The reason incidents like this one keep popping up all over the country is that for decades now America has been putting off necessary investments in our public infrastructure – our roads, bridges, airports, ports and waterways, rail, levees, schools, water systems, energy systems, and other public facilities. This infrastructure meets the public’s safety and welfare needs, and supports the nation’s economic growth and competitiveness, but it is falling apart.

The American Society of Civil Engineers earlier this month estimated that the nation needs to spend $1.7 trillion over the next nine years just on its surface transportation network alone – almost double what is currently on the books. Being cheap on this front is costing us plenty: $130 billion in 2010, according to the ASCE, “including approximately $97 billion in vehicle operating costs, $32 billion in delays in travel time, $1.2 billion in safety costs, and $590 million in environmental costs.”

At the same time we have a jobs crisis: 13.9 million Americans officially out of work; another 8.3 million working part-time who would want full-time jobs, millions more who have pretty much thrown up their hands in today’s stagnant economy.

The answer to both problems is obvious: Put millions of people to work repairing and rebuilding our public infrastructure – now. Do it while the nation has an abundance of idle skilled labor, unused construction and manufacturing capacity, and record low borrowing costs. Ignore the deficit-mongers. This is essential for addressing today’s jobs crisis and tomorrow’s economic growth needs. Plus, investing in infrastructure costs less than the cost of high levels of unemployment: the lower tax revenues, loss of business activity, and all of the forms of government spending resulting from slow growth and increased joblessness.

“Maintaining our levees and dams isn’t pork-barrel spending, it’s an urgent priority, and that’s what we’ll do when I’m president.” – Barack Obama, campaign speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, June 21, 2008

President Obama has had the right rhetoric when it comes to investing in infrastructure. But none of the plans getting serious consideration in Washington match the scale of the problem – and take advantage of an exceptional opportunity. Even the White House proposes to spend only $556 billion over six years on highways and public transportation.

Meanwhile, the conservative majority in Congress unabashedly wants to move the country backwards. A plan put forward by Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that would authorize a scandalously measly $38 billion a year, roughly 35 percent less than the inadequate spending levels of 2009. This cutback in federal spending will actually kill jobs, not create them. But even more extremist forces among Republicans in Congress are seriously considering ending federal involvement on transportation altogether by allowing to expire on Sept. 30 the federal gasoline tax that pays for transportation spending.

So, once again, let’s state the obvious: We have been deferring the maintenance of our infrastructure and now our roads and bridges and all the rest are literally crumbling. This is holding our economy back. This is degrading our standard of living.

Here are a few infrastructure facts:

*The American Society of Civil Engineers has graded our infrastructure ‘D,’ estimating that $2.122 trillion must be spent just to bring it up to “satisfactory” condition. (American Society of Civil Engineers)

*More than 25 percent of bridges in the U.S. need significant repairs and/or are handling more traffic than they were designed to carry. (Christian Science Monitor and U.S. Department of Transportation)

*Nearly a third of all highway fatalities are related to substandard road conditions, obsolete road designs, or roadside hazards. (New America Foundation)

*A significant water line bursts every two minutes in the U.S. (The New York Times)

*One in three schools are in bad enough condition “to interfere with the delivery of instruction.” (U.S. Department of Education)

*By 2020 the nation’s deteriorating surface transportation infrastructure will cost the American economy more than 870,000 jobs and suppress the growth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product by $3.1 trillion.” (ASCE)

We need to drive a bold agenda for repairing and expanding our public assets into the national debate, making the case for doing the work now that will create good, middle-class jobs and establish the foundation for future sustainable economic growth. Here are some of the elements:

*Reauthorize the six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill, which has been caught in conservative gridlock for more than two years, at no less than the $556 billion that the White House has requested. According to the Economic Policy Institute, $500 billion invested in transportation infrastructure can produce 7.2 million new jobs, including 3,236,686 construction jobs, 761,321 manufacturing jobs, and 625,081 jobs in business and professional services.

*Create national and state infrastructure banks (iBanks) that can leverage about $640 billion in private investments from a $10 billion federal contribution. (Senator John Kerry)

*Invest $20 billion in school construction, maintenance and greening, which can generate 250,000 skilled jobs. (Economic Policy Institute and FAST!)

*Implement The National Broadband Plan, which “will create thousands, if not millions, of jobs,” and can be funded by auctioning broadcast spectrum. [National Broadband Plan]

*Build a high-speed rail network with U.S.-manufactured rail cars.

Conservatives in Congress and in state governments, egged on by right-wing think tanks, are actively opposing increased public spending on maintaining and modernizing our infrastructure.

Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin refused federal dollars for high-speed rail projects in their states. New Jersey’s Republican governor rejected federal funding to expand a 100-year-old rail tunnel connecting his state to New York, costing the state thousands of jobs.

(Fox News contributor) Michelle Malkin denounces infrastructure spending as just “more spending” and calls an infrastructure bank a “government slush fund.” The Heritage Foundation actually says that government spending on public infrastructure is bad for the economy and “may even yield a net loss in jobs.” Such spending, a Heritage Foundation article says, is just “extracting money from one part of the economy and spending it elsewhere.” Other conservatives argue maintaining the infrastructure is just “more Obama spending,” or just denigrate it as more “tax and spend.”

This is preposterous. Conservatives seem unaware that they are living off of the past savings account of infrastructure that was built up starting in the FDR years, through Eisenhower’s investment in an interstate highway system and into the good years of the 1960s and 1970s. This is what enabled businesses to prosper and people in the middle class to improve their quality of life. The social contract that We, the People agreed to was that businesses and people who did well paid back by pitching in to keep the network system of public assets up to date.

But now we’re in 2011 with a crumbling system, with bursting water pipes just one symptom of the decay. Our economy and our businesses cannot continue to compete in a world where our competitors are putting hundreds of billions of dollars into modern, 21st-century high-technology national public infrastructures and Republicans won’t even let us fill potholes.

Let’s call the conservative war on infrastructure spending what it is: It is a job killer and a threat to our economic future. Their alternative, converting public assets into private enterprises, also violates the social contract that is at the core of our democracy.

When Congress returns from its recess next month, it will be up to us to focus lawmakers’ attention on the people who can’t take a job they need because the bus route that would take them to that job just got canceled, or the drivers who face daily mind-numbing commutes because the road network could not expand to accommodate the growth of the community, or the students who are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter because there is no money to weatherize their school building. And it is up to us to focus lawmakers’ attention on the unemployed people who could be put to work today addressing all of those issues.


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Modern fire sprinklers now guard Ford’s historic Piquette Ave. plant

DETROIT – The near complete burning of the Olds Motor Works plant in the city in March 1901 had no small effect on Henry Ford when he hired architects Field, Hinchman and Smith to design his first automotive manufacturing plant at Piquette and Beaubien streets, which was completed in 1904.

The architects had the Piquette plant built with the latest fire-suppression systems, including fireproof doors that could isolate the plant into four sections, iron caps that acted as firestops atop the structure’s wooden beams, camphered beam edges which could slow the progression of a fire, and three-inch thick maple floors. And Ford and his architects took the building’s design a step further than most commercial and industrial buildings of the day, by opting to install a sprinkler system in the building.

That same sprinkler system is still in place and likely would still work today, at some capacity, although it wouldn’t meet modern building codes. That’s why today’s owners and guardians of the Piquette Plant, the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex (T-Plex), are so happy to see their long-held wish granted this summer: the installation of a modern sprinkler system.

“We’ve been scared to death of a fire at the Piquette Plant,” said the T-Plex’s first President, Richard Folsom. “We’re thrilled that we’re getting the new sprinkler system.” A June 2005 fire that wiped out a nearby historic Studebaker Plant from the same era “really ramped up our zeal to do this,” said Dick Rubens, the T-Plex’s current president.

Systematic Fire Protection and a small crew of Sprinkler Fitters Local 704 members have worked at the three-story plant this spring and summer, installing some 2,500 feet of four-and six-inch-diameter sprinkler pipe and 587 sprinkler heads. The project is expected to wrap up by the end of summer.

The initial scope of the project called for the removal of the old sprinkler system, whose pipes and heads are exposed overhead throughout the building. The original system was built by General Fire Extinguisher Co. for $5,100. But the T-Plex Board changed their mind and decided to leave the old system in place as an architectural artifact. That lead to some recalculations and new measurements for the Systematic crew, who now had to work around the existing system and drill their own holes through a few 18-inch-thick brick walls.

The plant is 402 feet long, but it’s only 56 feet wide. “We were severely limited on what we could do and where we could run the pipe,” said Systematic’s Rick Michaels, who designed the system. They bid $230,000 for the project. “Things moved a bit slowly because there are a lot of old cars on display here, and people here visiting the museum. But we stayed out of the way as much as possible and did the best we could. I’m really excited about this project. We’ve met a lot of interesting people, and it’s nice to be a part of this building’s history.”

And what a rich history the building has. It was the first factory built by Henry Ford, and his early Models B, C, F, K, N, R, S, and T were assembled at the plant before Ford Motor Co. outgrew the space and moved in 1910. Ford dabbled with aspects of the moving assembly line at the Piquette plant, later perfecting them at his Highland Park and Dearborn Rouge plants. “Ford literally changed the way things were manufactured in the world, and he started right here,” Rubens said.

The Piquette plant has city, state and federal historic landmark status. And the T-Plex is in the long process of seeking a status for the building as United Nations World Heritage Convention site. That list currently includes 936 properties around the world “forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value.”

The plant’s third floor manufacturing area is virtually unchanged since it was built, with the same oil-soaked flooring and the same paint on the walls. With the sprinkler system nearly complete, next on the T-Plex’s to-do list is to install a new roof and put in a new six-volt carbon arc lighting system similar to what was used when the building opened, a task which will be handled by IBEW Local 58 electricians working for Motor City Electric.

According to the T-Plex, Ford outgrew the building, located near Detroit’s News Center area, and sold it to the Studebaker Corp. in January 1911. The company built an attached Albert Kahn designed parts storage and service building in 1920. Subsequent owners were the 3M Corporation, Cadillac Overall Company and Heritage Investments. A widely read article in the 1990s by Trent Boggess called “Henry Ford’s Forgotten Factory” brought new attention to the building, and the T-Plex acquired the building in April 2000.

Today the Piquette Plant is a burgeoning museum, with numerous old cars and displays illustrating the rise of the Ford Motor Co. and the rest of the automotive industry in Detroit. Rubens said repairs and updates are happening slowly but surely at the old plant as money becomes available. We published a feature on repair work at the Piquette plant by BAC Local 1 masons on the job in 2008.

The sprinkler work “has gone better than I envisioned, and the disruption to our operation was minimal,” said Rubens, who added that Systematic used “a very sharp pencil” when it came time to bid the work – which is tremendously important to a museum that’s hardly flush with cash.  “These guys did a great job.”

There’s not much difference between the old sprinkler system and the new one, Michaels said.

The pipes are wider today and less prone to corrosion, but the sprinkler heads then and now are designed to deluge an area with water when excessive heat is detected. “The system they installed has held up well over the years, “Michaels said. “It’s certainly the oldest system I’ve ever encountered, but the technology hasn’t changed much over the years.”

(For information on the Piquette museum, go to or call 313.872.8759).

INSTALLING A COUPLING on a sprinkler cross main on the third floor of the old Ford Motor Co. Piquette Plant in Detroit is Jeff Gray of Sprinkler Fitters Local 704, working for Systematic Fire Protection. Henry Ford’s first concept of an automotive production line took place on this floor, and it is virtually unchanged from a century ago.

A NEW SPRINKLER HEAD, at left, is among 587 sprinkled throughout the Piquette Plant that will make the historic facility safer for its visitors and its contents, which includes a variety of antique cars. Original, century-old sprinkler pipe and heads, shown at right, have been kept in place.


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