Engineers: Leave the City's Bridge Planning To Us

Featured in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

By Evan Barton

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, published online 08-07-2007

BROOKLYN — In response to two recent disasters — the collapse of the 1-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis and the Midtown steam pipe explosion here in New York — the American Engineering Alliance (AEA) and Professional Engineers (PE) held a press conference at the Manhattan foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In particular, they discussed the need for greater protection of city infrastructure.

The engineers criticized the Bloomberg administration for giving non-engineers and non-architects oversight over technical projects. They advocated more oversight by engineers and other technical professionals in government projects, and recommended a new position — deputy mayor of infrastructure management.

“We’re trying to get our elected officials to pay attention to the seriousness of this problem,” said Salvatore Galletta, chair of Professional Engineers. “Elected officials are making decisions that they aren’t necessarily qualified to make.”

State Sen. Eric Adams, D-Central Brooklyn/Park Slope, spoke in support of placing more engineers in government. “What informs your decisions, if you’re not technically informed to make decisions?” he said.

“You cannot put my cousin Vinny in charge” of maintaining and updating city and state bridges, pipes, and other infrastructure systems, he said.

Councilman Alan Gerson, whose district encompasses the Manhattan sides of the Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Williamsburg Bridges, mentioned that New York’s infrastructure is more than a century old in many places. He suggested that technical oversight would be important in maintaining the system’s sustainability.

“There’s no question that this city has one of the most complicated systems of any city in the world,” he said, adding, “What has barely worked — and sometimes not worked — so far, cannot go forward.”

‘Bad Economic Decisions’
They generally advocated for a proactive approach to addressing the city’s aging infrastructure, practicing preventive measures to prevent future loss of life. Galletta suggested that engineers have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure the safety of the public, and placing non-engineer managers over government projects and fund allocation is inefficient and potentially dangerous.

“At the very least, you get bad economic decisions,” he said, as well as investment in the wrong projects.

Both Galletta and Adams mentioned a “dumbing down” in many of the city’s appointed officials, which Adams suggested is dangerous in the long run. “We can’t come back later and make retrospective repairs,” he said, giving further support to the preventive approach.

According to a press liaison at the Department of Transportation (DOT), however, groups like AEA and PE primarily want more jobs for engineers.

In a prepared statement, “There is no basis to the logic that the immediate supervisor of a licensed professional engineer must also be a licensed professional engineer. Under that logic, the mayor would be required to be a licensed professional engineer, attorney, teacher, certified public accountant, actuary, etc.”

The Department of Transportation has a Bridge Repair and Preventative Maintenance unit that employs 34 people with engineering titles, as well as an additional 264 tradespeople and support staff. The executive director, Dorothy Roses, is responsible for the allocation of federal funds for preventative maintenance, taking these funds and transferring them into productive use.

Every engineer in this section reports to one of two professional engineers (George Klein or Mohammad Sharif), and if the immediate supervisor of an engineer in this section is not an engineer, then he or she cannot overrule an engineer on engineering matters.

‘Je Ne Sais Pas’
Several people crossing the bridge Monday afternoon said they would continue to do so. Two French visitors crossing the bridge said, “Je ne sais pas. Who knows what will happen?” They suggested that crossing the bridge and seeing the view of the city was worth the risk.

Another walker stated, “I’ve been walking across this bridge for 17 years, and I think it’s pretty safe.”