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Sustainable Infrastructure: Giving government confidence to invest

With High Speed 2 in judicial review, plans for the Thames Tideway Tunnel about to go before the Planning Inspectorate and the very future ownership of Britain’s highway network up for debate, the challenge of uniting short-term public need for economic growth with long-term sustainable infrastructure development has never been greater.

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“The question is are we prepared to invest on the scale the Victorians did to make future infrastructure sustainable, or are we just going to invest for the short-term? asks URS managing director of international operations John Horgan.

“Brunel and Bazalgette’s contributions to infrastructure are still in use because they were designed to the highest standards; they are amortised many times over. This should be our guiding principle; to design infrastructure that is future-proof and enduring,” Horgan adds.

The short-term need is evident. “In 2013 we need the government spending confi dently,” says URS UK managing director Jerome Munro-Lafon, echoing the view across the construction industry that investment in infrastructure is a sure-fire way of stimulating economic growth.

It’s clearly something that even the government has recognised, pledging an extra £5.5bn of infrastructure investment in its Autumn Statement, funded by cuts elsewhere. “There does seem to be a political will to spend on infrastructure,” says Horgan.

But how does the government - any government - invest with confi dence when so many major projects find themselves mired in debate and review? How can the government invest, safe in the knowledge that it has been given the right information to make the bold and sometimes difficult choices that lead to long-term, sustainable infrastructure?

“The government doesn’t get enough credit for not slowing down or stopping Crossrail. And it’s the same for High Speed 2”

Jerome Munro-Lafon, URS

Thames Water’s proposed £4.1bn Thames Tideway Tunnel is a classic example. The project, driven by the need to alleviate storm water overflows of sewage into the River Thames, is proving controversial largely because of the disruption construction may cause.

“Part of the sustainability argument is that you have to make socially responsible decisions,” says Horgan. “And sometimes that is not popular.

“It’s about meeting the needs of the majority without the cost to the minority being too high,” he says. “So the Thames Tideway Tunnel debate isn’t really a debate; you can’t have these debates over issues like potential construction disruption,” says Horgan. “The objective of protecting the environment in the long term is clearly the priority and the argument needs to centre around the transformational impact it will have on London.

“So we have to provide the politicians with good information so that democracy works properly,” states Horgan. “That’s what we as engineers can and must do.”

Crossrail is a great example. Detailed information was provided; vital cross-party consensus was built; and, as a result, commitment has been maintained despite the tough economic times.

As Munro-Lafon points out, through Crossrail, government has perhaps already shown more commitment to investment in infrastructure than people think. “The government doesn’t get enough credit for not slowing down or stopping Crossrail,” he says. “And it’s the same for High Speed 2. These are meaty schemes that give confidence for 2013. Now the government just needs to do a few things to encourage people to invest.”

But, asks Munro-Lafon, how do we shape the argument in a compelling way that ensures cash is spent developing infrastructure that marries what people need - road & rail links and power - with sustainability?

The key is understanding the ratio between carbon use in construction and in use, explains URS UK head of sustainability Robert Spencer.

As he explains, we all know that zero carbon buildings are easily achievable these days: you build them with very high levels of insulation and you incorporate solar PV, ground source heat and other renewables appropriate to the site in the energy mix so that over the life of the building, energy can even be put back in to the system making their impact on the environment truly net zero.

Highways Agency managed motorways

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URS was awarded two Managed Motorway schemes in July 2012. It began design work to deliver the M6 Junctions 10a to 13 in August, and in November it started its M3 Junctions 2 to 4a design.

Both schemes are being delivered to fast-track programmes and being supported by the Highways Agency Delivery Hub. Its range of services include highways, structures, geotechnics, environmental and ITS.

URS is a major player in Managed Motorway design. Its expertise is built on its success as ECI designer on M1 Junctions 10 to 13, where the construction work is planned to be complete by Christmas; and its client agent role on M1 Junctions 25 to 28 widening and controlled motorway, opened to traffic in 2010.

Following the recent successful awards, URS has been selected by the Highways Agency to lead a collaborative alliance of three consultants to develop the M4 Junctions 3 to 12 Managed Motorway Scheme; initially to secure funding for the project from DfT, with a view to taking the scheme through the full development process.

 

But government-sponsored research shows that even with ultra-energy efficient buildings and renewable energy aplenty, the predicted ratio of embodied operational carbon over a 60-year design life is between 1:4 and 1:8, suggesting that designers can still make the greatest impact by addressing operational carbon rather than embodied carbon.

For linear infrastructure, such as aviation, roads and railways this is harder. Reducing carbon during the construction stage is tricky: huge quantities of materials are needed to build them, there are logistical challenges in getting them to site and construction techniques can be energy intensive. Then there is the energy mix behind the manufacture of the construction products and where the raw materials come from.

There are bigger problems when it comes to the carbon in use. The infrastructure is often used ineffi ciently, and of course, the things that use it chew through carbon at a great rate of knots - aeroplanes, cars and trains all use fuel of some form, and often that fuel is either directly or indirectly fossil fuel.

But this can be tackled. While solar powered aeroplanes are some years away from commercial development, opportunities abound in rail and roads, says Spencer.

“Infrastructure is much more complex,” he says. “But there are opportunities for linear infrastructure on the ground. We know how to do low carbon materials and logistics, and if we can use it more efficiently and get the energy mix right, we get low carbon in operation as well.”

High Speed 2 is the stand out example here. Munro-Lafon says it is a classic example of the need for engineers to rise above the opposition and give government clear evidence of the long-term, sustainable benefits of the scheme.

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“The rail system is running completely beyond its capacity. We have to do something. HS2 is a good way to add capacity in a constrained network”

John Horgan, URS

First though, are we absolutely clear that HS2 is a good thing? “The rail system is running completely beyond its capacity,” states Horgan. “We have to do something. HS2 is a good way to add capacity in a constrained network.”

Munro-Lafon accepts that it is right to debate the economic argument, but he stresses that that in itself is misleading. “That money recycles itself through the economy several times. There is a very strong case that spending on infrastructure drives the economy forward.”

Both see the importance of debating the detail of the finer points of the route; however getting the core built is the visionary, long-term thinking that is needed. “HS2 is about adding capacity; providing a new high speed line allows existing lines to serve more destinations,” says Munro-Lafon. “So creating the core from London to Birmingham onto which extra can be added is key - just as it was with Crossrail and as it was with high speed rail in France. It marks a step change in the quality of the rail network.”

Big thinking is also being applied to roads, where initiatives such as Managed Motorways are a possible precursor to much bigger things.

“Making things more sustainable doesn’t just mean making them greener,” says Horgan. “It also means making them more durable and enduring.” That means using the most long-term sustainable option for asset renewal (see box), and also the most long-term sustainable option when looking to upgrade those assets.

“Optimising your assets through intelligent re-engineering and therefore extending the life of them is sustainable infrastructure,” agrees Spencer, referencing the Highways Agency’s Managed Motorways programme where rather than widening the highway, the hard shoulder is used as an extra lane with variable speed limits. This programme is set to accelerate in 2013 after the government last month picked three such schemes to trial the new method that will see projects delivered in half the time it normally takes. URS is working on two of them.

The three schemes, on the M3 between Junctions 2 and 4a, the M6 between Junctions 10a and 13 and the M1 from Junction 28 to 31, have been brought forward to this spending review period and will complete by 2015.

The announcement came just a day after Prime Minister David Cameron told business leaders that he would reduce the time it takes to deliver projects by cutting red tape and instilling urgency into government departments; it shows how eager government at the highest levels is to invest in infrastructure - all it needs is certainty from the industry that the money is being well spent.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said he was confident it was. His Department for Transport and the Highways Agency looked hard at how to speed up the decision making process and the time it takes to have roads ready for use. He said 1km of Managed Motorway can now be built every two weeks, instead of every four, through more off-site construction, 24 hour working and greater overlapping of design and construction.

“We are seeing some quite dramatic changes to the network that are adding extra capacity faster and at much less cost than we used to,” says Munro-Lafon.

Managed Motorways are a handy stepping stone towards a futuristic, truly sustainable highway network - a network of electric cars, charged by power generated from a renewable source and driving themselves in a truly computer controlled environment. The result: network capacity is maximised, jams are a thing of the past and access to the network is priced according to demand. It may be a vision today, but in the next year that vision could go some way to becoming a reality: In September California legislators signed a bill that will lead to the legalising of self-driving cars. Signing the Bill, Governor Jerry Brown said: “Today we’re looking at science-fiction becoming tomorrow’s reality.”

The bill was signed at the headquarters of Google, which has been testing a fleet of 12 autonomous computer controlled vehicles for several years. It has said that it has logged more than 500,000km in its cars without an accident.

It’s a sign of the future shape of things. “Electric cars, high speed trains … we are seeing huge changes in transportation and how the infrastructure is being used,” says Munro-Lafon. “Creating the environment we live in is no longer just the structural engineering of it. We see massive change ahead.”

“Engineering enables change and provides the opportunity for change,” agrees Horgan. “The opportunity is huge at the moment.”

Highways Whole Life Cost/ Carbon Tool

URS has been at the forefront of the efforts to determine the whole life cost of highways. The company’s WLCO2ST tool allows highway managers to evaluate whole-life financial costs and carbon emissions for different road maintenance options. Users can calculate both whole-life cost and carbon footprint for a range of different pavement maintenance options without the need for multiple tools.

The tool incorporates a generic cost / carbon database derived from peer-reviewed data available in the public domain to help with the selection of preferred options. The application is used by URS design teams to add value to preliminary designs but can also be used by highway PFI consortia to optimise design sustainability and by local authorities planning their short- and medium-term maintenance budgets. Although initially applied to road maintenance activities, there is scope for it to be extended to other major linear infrastructure.

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