ASCE Life Member Daniel L. Dornan, P.E., M.ASCE, is a special assistant to the director of the Prince George’s County (MD) Department of Permitting, Inspections, and Enforcement, a department he helped develop and launch in 2013. Prior to joining the public sector in 2012, Dornan served as a management consultant for 36 years with several major consulting firms, including KPMG, AECOM, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Booz Allen.
In this edition of ASCE Member Voices, Dornan recalls the past – specifically, the Egyptian pyramids – as he looks to the future of infrastructure. The key, he says, is to invest in mega-projects that capture the public’s imagination.
For almost 5,000 years, visitors to the Nile Valley, in Egypt, have been awed by the pyramids. Their construction evolved from the early Egyptians’ reverence for the divinity and immortality of their pharaohs, who came to personify the strength, character, and longevity of society itself.
Built as eternal gateways to heaven for deceased pharaohs, pyramids were more than just a monument to the power and immortality of individual pharaohs. These huge undertakings spurred on and benefitted from advancements in societal organization, irrigation, agriculture, animal husbandry, engineering, transportation, astronomy, writing, and recordkeeping.
The pyramids symbolized the power and self-confidence of ancient Egypt, the cohesive nature of its culture, the durability of its institutions, the advancement of its technology, and the dreams and values of its people. Five thousand years later, the pyramids stand as a testament to the devotion of a people and their commitment to look beyond the present.
Major civilizations have found expression in the undertaking of large-scale infrastructure projects that reflect the character, ambitions, technology, and self-confidence of their people and leaders. Examples are the magnificent temples of ancient Greece and Rome; the extensive road systems of the Roman and Inca empires; the Great Wall of China; the sprawling castles and grand cathedrals of medieval Europe; the Suez, Grand, and Panama canals; and the railroad systems in Europe, America, and Russia.
During its initial 200 years, the United States produced many large-scale infrastructure projects that captured the imagination of both its people and those of other nations. These included the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad system, Hoover Dam, Interstate Highway System, and the Apollo moon program.
These large-scale undertakings share several characteristics that set them apart from ordinary infrastructure projects, including:
• Appeal to the highest aspirations and dreams of the nation responsible for its construction
• Involve a long-term and large-scale national commitment of resources
• Incorporate cutting-edge technology indigenous to the host nation
• Require a high degree of coordination of the financial, human, material, and technological resources of the host nation
• Provide long-term (both direct and indirect) benefits to the host nation that extend far beyond the life span of its builders
• Promote and reflect a sense of national pride and self-confidence
Growing and advancing societies produce such projects. Stagnating or declining societies do not.
Since the early 1970s, the United States has produced but few mega-projects that captured the imagination of Americans and represented a significant commitment to a future vision for the nation.
The U.S. space program has drifted from its eminent position among developed countries due to budgetary, administrative, and bureaucratic constraints and competition from other programs. The nation’s critical infrastructure has fallen into various stages of disrepair, while new initiatives such as very high-speed rail systems remain stalled for lack of funding.
In contrast, other nations have embarked on major infrastructure projects with international visibility that provide long-term benefits: think of the Chunnel rail tunnel connecting England and France, the La Grande Complex hydroelectric project in eastern Canada, the Dutch Sea Barrier Delta Project, and the skyscrapers and man-made islands of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
As America approaches the third decade of the 21st century, the nation is challenged to reestablish its leadership in both global and local affairs. Its success depends on the nation’s ability to define and implement enduring actions that capture the imagination and reflect the aspirations of its people, earn the respect of the worldwide community, and advance America’s collective interests.
What America needs now
What America needs is a concerted effort to define a worthy national infrastructure agenda, one that brings signature programs and projects whose achievement would embody the collective vision, desires, and technology of the American people.
A number of potential “pyramid projects” that might be considered worthy of pursuit by the United States include the following:
• Develop commercially-viable fusion reactors to produce low-cost, environmentally safe energy
• Link major city pairs with super-high-speed ground transportation systems (rail, maglev, or Hyperloop)
• Establish and maintain permanent underwater colonies on the ocean floor to advance marine research and develop/deploy life-support systems capable of surviving under water or in space
• Establish and maintain permanent colonies on the moon within the next decade
• Appeals to a primal longing by human beings to explore and settle other heavenly bodies that comprise our celestial neighborhood
• Requires a significant and long-term commitment of resources, perhaps involving several nations and many commercial enterprises through prudent public-private partnerships and other forms of commercialization
• Requires a high degree of coordination of administration, technology, resources, and diplomacy
• Requires the development and application of the latest technology in space transportation, communication, construction, and life-support (including two permanent space stations in geosynchronous orbit around the earth to provide staging areas for materials and personnel transiting between the earth and moon colonies)
• Produces myriad benefits and spin-off consequences for the United States and the people of the world, including new products, techniques, technologies, and mineral resources
• Provides a necessary stepping-stone in the further exploration of space, leading to missions to and potential colonization of Mars and beyond, as envisioned by the slogan created by a presidential commission in 2004: “Earth to Moon to Mars and Beyond”
The colonization of the moon represents an ideal pyramid project for the United States and the most logical next step to reestablishing the United States’ leadership role in space exploration, scientific discovery, and technology.