We learn something new about Coronavirus on what seems like a daily basis. This was especially true back in early March. There was so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic that all of a sudden everything was either shut down or cancelled. During the early stages, before workplaces were ordered to close, we wondered what type of affect it would have on our industry and on public works projects. Now that we’ve had time to see how the construction season has played out, we can look back and consider the affects that Coronavirus has and will continue to have.
At that time, most of the engineering and design work for the upcoming season was complete, but I tried to imagine whether or not the contractors we work with would choose not to work. I couldn’t imagine these people and companies choosing to be shut down for a portion of the construction season. However, the supply chain of roads, sewers and utilities doesn’t start and stop at the Contractor. If the suppliers elect not to work or somehow get shutdown by an outbreak then the contractor’s hands could be tied. The same goes for the manufacturers of the building materials and the suppliers of the raw materials and so on. Luckily, it never quite reached that level.
Soon enough, Governor Whitmer issued the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order directing the people of Michigan not to leave their homes unless their work was considered essential. Many types of construction such as private development, residential construction and landscaping were considered nonessential. Perhaps, however, due to the condition of Michigan’s Roads, MDOT public works projects were considered essential and local public works projects were up to the discretion of the municipality.
Many contractors who would’ve otherwise gotten started as early as April, were at a standstill due to all of the uncertainty. This pushed many projects to start much later than planned. In a state like Michigan where the construction season is already tight, delays can be quite frustrating.
The mass exodus by many different agencies to remote working has also had a significant impact on construction this year. Many projects involve coordination between numerous groups. For example, a project could require permits from different government departments, cooperation from various utilities, utility locating by the MISS DIG system, and coordination with residents or business owners. Many of these different players are now working from home without the resources they are used to. To make matters worse, this construction season seems as busy as ever. Consequently, there are many steps along the way that can be delayed by the employees that are swamped by heavy workloads with fewer resources to get their part done.
One other consideration to think about is how the pandemic may impact the funding of future public works improvements. Most of the projects scheduled for this year were likely already approved and funded. However, many local governments rely on state funding to fix their roads, and state revenues have been hit extremely hard by the pandemic. With less incoming gas and sales tax revenue thanks to limited travel and less consumer spending, it’s easy to imagine that the state will have less money to provide local municipalities. Similarly, if the economy weakens and experiences extended unemployment, cities may expect to see fewer tax dollars as well.
The Road Ahead
One thing is certain, our roads, water mains, sewers, pump stations, and bridges don’t care that we are suffering from a global pandemic. Water mains will not stop breaking, the roads cracking, or old sewers collapsing. Luckily, we have contractors that have implemented health and safety protocols and they have been willing and eager to work. Different agencies are adapting to a new way of working. Communities are still committed to repairing their infrastructure. Engineering projects have always been an illustration of human ingenuity and resilience, and the response we’ve seen to the Coronavirus within our industry so far has been another perfect presentation of this.
Adapting to changes in the industry is critical no matter the business, and the Coronavirus climate demands change. We’ve learned to perform nearly all of our work remotely, we can maintain our collaborative strengths through the use of zoom, and we’ve been able to shift nearly all of our paperwork to electronic means. We’ll always be looking to find new and creative ways to deliver successful projects to our clients and communities, and in this case, we can expect that the benefits will outlast the Coronavirus.
Ross Wilberding, Engineering
Born and raised in southeast Michigan, Ross graduated from U of M in 2014 where he studied Civil Engineering with a background in Hydraulics and Hydrology. Ross currently specializes in general-civil and municipal engineering projects, and is heavily involved in project management. Obtaining his professional engineering license in 2019, Ross’ experience ranges from water reliability and hydraulic/hydrologic studies to infrastructure design of sewers, water mains, pressure reducing valve stations, and roads. In the limited time that he isn’t working on his house, Ross spends as much time as possible up north or on the water. Ross enjoys outdoor activities like golfing, fishing, boating, and skiing. He also enjoys playing sports like hockey and tennis while he still can. Outside of his amateur athletic ambitions he’s also a passionate fan of local college and professional sports.