Local engineering firms say public infrastructure projects helping keep doors open
Earlier this month, as the country's economy began to struggle due to the efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, the American Council of Consulting Engineers urged the country's leaders to help stimulate the economy by investing in infrastructure projects.
Congress may be paying attention to that request.
The news outlet CNN reports House Democrats have been talking among themselves about proposing a fourth stimulus bill that could include an infrastructure component to help ease the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the nation.
The idea was first floated in January by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, in January, when he suggested a $760 billion bill focused on transportation and infrastructure projects as a possible way to help the economy bounce back from an expected hit from COVID-19.
More recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that in addition to providing more money for individuals and state and local governments, she would like to see a fourth stimulus package include funding to move forward work on infrastructure projects.
Many public agencies, however, already are helping local engineering firms keep revenue flowing from public projects.
When Troy Bowers first saw signs of the struggling economy, the executive vice president at Murraysmith had flashbacks to the Great Recession and immediately began contacting clients. Unlike the mid-2000s, when work for the building industry dried up almost overnight, the responses Bowers received this time around were encouraging.
"Pretty much every client I contacted says its business as usual — or business as feasible," Bowers told the Business Tribune.
Founded in Portland in 1980 with a staff of just two, Murraysmith now has offices in five states and 300 employees. The firm also has expanded its original focus on water and wastewater projects to include other infrastructure areas such as transportation and bridges for mostly public clients.
Much of the public work that agencies are moving ahead with right now is needed to make sure that lights stay on and clean water is readily available, Bowers said. He and his team, for example, are involved in a Willamette water supply program, doing large diameter piping design. The firm also has work underway for an aquifer storage and recovery project in Salem and a large-scale water storage and recovery project on top of Cooper Mountain for the City o
In the age of COVID-19, however, much of Murraysmiths' work for those projects is now being done remotely. The firm already had much of the technology in place that was needed to make sure employees were all able to connect their homes, with a few extra adjustments.
The usual 50 seats in a virtual private network for conference and meeting calls, for example, have been bumped up, first to 200 seats and more recently to 250 to allow the engineers, drafters and marketing and accounting personnel to continue to work and connect as necessary. For clients, the firm is tapping resources such as Zoom and Skype.
The shift to an almost completely virtual workplace has been relatively smooth, according to Bowers.
"Our IT team has done a great job preparing us for something like this over the past few years," he said. "We've had no choke points with data flows."
Making the transition to a mostly remote arrangment also was relatively easy for Cornforth Consultants, according to Gerry Heslin, a senior associate and vice president with the Portland-based firm.
Cornforth's 28 employees are all working mainly from their homes, with only a few having to go to the firm's office to handle occasional tasks such as payroll and some invoicing that require security measures only available in-house.
That smooth transition has allowed the firm to continue to focus on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers work that makes up the bulk of its project load. Some engineering firms have been called up to help the Corps set up emergency hospitals and makeshift triage facilities, but Heslin said Cornforth isn't one of them.
"Right now, the Army Corps is focused on COVID-19 specific work, mostly setting put temporary hospital facilities. There's not a lot of high-end engineering in those," Heslin said. "It's mostly logistics and materials flow.
But there's still critical work to be done on Corps projects, and that's where Cornforth has been keeping busy. Many Army Corps projects focus on infrastructure that is critical to keeping the nation running. The agency also has regular inspections that must be done to ensure structures are safe. Cornforth, for example, currently is involved in levee work underway in Seattle, as well as local water supply projects.
"Our bread and butter is the mission critical infrastructure for dam and levee safety, water and supply storage and distribution," Hesline said. "We can't stop everything just because of (COVID-19). We have to work smart and protect our people."
While design and planning aspects of projects are relatively easy to handle remotely, actual construction can require more safety measures these days. Murraysmith, for example, has a project in Lake Oswego that is ready to begin physical construction.
Even though workers on infrastructure projects by nature don't come into regular close contact with one another, Murraysmith and its partners are coordinating to set in place jobsite practices to keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure, including implementing safety steps provided recently by Associated General Contractors.
In a letter sent out by last week, Mike Salsgiver, executive director of the Oregon-Columbia AGC chapter, stressed that following safe practices and keeping employees protected from novel coronavirus exposure is critical in order to ensure the state will allow construction projects to continue their activity.
There's also another reason why Bowers and his firm are talking with clients to find ways to safely continue planning and design on infrastructure projects. Making sure clients continue forward now with design and planning work means there will be a supply of shelf-ready projects when "stay at home" and "shelter in place" orders eventually are lifted.
"Being able to put contractors to work tomorrow and provide family wage jobs … will trickle into the (overall economy)," Bowers said. "That's one of the reasons to move ahead with design (phases), so that we can be construction-ready, especially if a (federal) stimulus comes through."
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