For the last eight years, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the United States’ infrastructure a D+ on its Infrastructure Report Card. That’s almost a decade at the brink of failure, with bridges in particular exhibiting no changes in their mediocre grades. We can save America’s crumbling infrastructure, especially its transportation system, but there is a better bridge that must be built first - one between labor, industry experts, and policy makers.  

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association estimates there are over 54,000 structurally deficient bridges that provide 174 million crossings for travelers each day. One in three bridges has been identified as in need of repair.

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This problem is not only common, it is expensive. Consumers pay more for the time they lose in traffic, and for the time and fuel costs associated with rerouted goods because bridges can no longer bear the weight of heavy trucks. Taxpayers bear the cost of maintenance and replacement, with an estimated cost to fix all backlogged bridge deficiencies of about $123.1 billion. And the emotional cost of potential fatalities is immeasurable.

Now is the time to improve how we address our nation’s infrastructure needs.

Congress must be proactive. All infrastructure work funded fully or in part by the government must include an assurance plan for timely repairs and maintenance. A poorly executed corrosion prevention effort is as good as doing nothing and a waste of taxpayer funds. Congress can ensure safe, long-lasting infrastructure by mandating that government projects be performed by certified specialists who maintain the high standards necessary to protect people.  

This is an opportunity to make up for the neglect and deficient repairs that have caused devastating circumstances for the American public. The job needs to be done right this time, and by people who are qualified to do it right, particularly when it comes to corrosion control.

Corrosion plays an astounding and costly role in structural impairments, robbing the U.S. economy of more than $500 billion every year. Investing in a workforce trained in corrosion prevention and control directly impacts safety and mitigates bridge-related costs to American taxpayers.

In 2004, the U.S. Navy conducted a cost-benefit analysis of two projects done by certified and non-certified coatings contractors. It found the certified contractors completed the job at half the expense and time. The less-qualified contractors initially issued a lower bid, but required more on-the-job training and ultimately cost more time and money.

Making sure projects are completed on time, on budget, and at or above standard is at the heart of the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE) International Institute’s NIICAP accreditation program that has raised the bar for all coating contractors. More specifically, the Institute’s AS-3 accreditation leads consumers and the federal government directly to contractors with a documented record of competence in corrosion prevention through proper coatings application, thereby protecting our assets from day one.

There is no question that the market needs more skilled workers. As construction firms expand payrolls, they worry about the availability of highly trained labor. Corrosion training standards will fill the need for safer practices and train the workers that the industry demands.

Industry and labor must work together to face the monumental task of protecting the infrastructure we all rely on, and foster a workforce that is qualified to do the job. IUPAT and the NACE are committed to this goal and have partnered to educate on best practices and demonstrate what ‘skilled’ means. Both organizations have state-of-the-art training facilities devoted to the instruction of the proper processes and controls required to prevent corrosion and structural deterioration. These facilities and the range of educational programs available are an ideal first step for graduates entering the workforce, for veterans, and for those seeking a career with purpose that is financially rewarding and secure.

To increase public safety, save taxpayer dollars, and build a proficient construction workforce, a new infrastructure bill needs strong corrosion prevention provisions, funding for corrosion control practices, and requirement for the highest level of standardized practices to protect and preserve infrastructure assets against corrosion.

Corrosion is both a problem and a solution. Left unmitigated, it has the potential to lead to catastrophic consequences. Preventing it keeps our society safe, our infrastructure strong, and provides job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Ken Rigmaiden is general president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and Bob Chalker is CEO of NACE International.