Engineering the Future: Infrastructure Is the Hypothalamus of Society

Engineering the Future: Infrastructure Is the Hypothalamus of Society

The basic functions of your body are controlled by the hypothalamus—think “breathe, breathe, heart beats, I’m hungry.” Similarly, every aspect of a modern economy is based on the foundation provided by a strong, efficient and resilient infrastructure. It supports a modern economy, silently, with a select few understanding the large amount of work required to keep it running. Society doesn’t see such infrastructure until there’s a catastrophic failure. Following a failure, there’s a rush to judgment and a quest for a “silver-bullet fix,” but that’s just not how it works.

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The March 2024 cargo-ship collision with the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore is a case in point. We’re heartbroken about the loss of life. And while we were all in immediate shock, we were thankful the numbers were not much larger. We mourn the workers who perished and thank the police who managed to get the traffic off the bridge in—amazingly—three minutes.

The Key bridge opened on March 23, 1977, three years before the Sunshine Skyway bridge collision and collapse in Tampa in 1980. That tragedy changed how engineers look to solve the ship/bridge collision dilemma with an appropriate fendering system.

There was no significant fender system in place with the Francis Scott Key bridge. The ships that regularly use our ports these days are two to three times the size and weight of those just a few years ago. The type of structure needed to dissipate that large amount of energy, which isn’t a linear scale but closer to a logarithmic scale, would be enormous.

Owners and engineers must decide that for such a low-probability event, is the investment appropriate? Paying for a fendering system would come from overall bridge funding, so which bridge rehabilitations and replacements would then be taken out of the plan? It’s always a balancing act as there are limited new sources of funding.

Additional Considerations

But that’s not the whole story. Certain U.S. ports tug massive cargo ships out to open sea, not just in the proximity of the port. Do we need to change Coast Guard navigation standards relative to tugboat operations? That would provide an additional factor of safety and may be much more economically feasible while providing immediate benefit.

What about naval architects? Are there better ways to provide back-up power and navigation systems in ships in case of emergencies? What’s the return on investment for such system improvements? Should there be tertiary redundancy?

Many questions have been asked about why the ship owner or operator isn’t liable for the cost. A maritime law from the 1800s limits the liability to the cost of the actual ship. The owner, operator, crew and cargo all have different laws they’re subject to, meaning there could be decades of litigation.

In the meantime, we need a bridge to service not just the local traffic, but the many supply chains across the country that rely on the Port of Baltimore. Therefore, an all-hands approach is being taken by the U.S. Department of Transportation to remove the debris and rebuild the bridge as soon as possible.

And finally, what about cyber-security systems at ports, on ocean-going freightliners, and other transportation and shipping modes? Are those systems current enough to mitigate ever-growing threats? A new report from GHD Digital addresses and offers solutions to these and other threats (

This is another example of the infrastructure dilemma. There’s no singular solution to these complex challenges, and it’s the weakest link in an infrastructure system that fails. We, as a profession, need to start thinking about the system of systems and advise our clients that current and future infrastructure solutions require evaluating the entire system and engaging all stakeholders.

We have a lot of work to do, but the good news is that the profession is equipped to rise to the occasion.

Stay Tuned

On a related subject, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its “Bridging the Gap” report in mid-May 2024, in preparation for its 2025 Report Card. “Bridging the Gap” identifies how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) put the nation on a better trajectory, but we can’t continue to invest at these levels. Bringing our infrastructure into a state of good repair will require increased investments across all levels of government and the private sector. If we go back to pre-BIL investment levels in 2026 and take our foot off the gas, there will be detrimental economic consequences that result in our infrastructure systems continuing to age in place. I’ll discuss more details of this
report in a future column.

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About Maria Lehman

Maria Lehman, P.E., F.ASCE, ENV SP, is U.S. Infrastructure Lead for GHD. She is the past president of the ASCE and currently serves as vice chair of President Biden’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council; email:

The post Engineering the Future: Infrastructure Is the Hypothalamus of Society first appeared on Informed Infrastructure.

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