Submitted By Jimmy R. Martin, PhD.

Chair of Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, Clemson University
Executive Director, RESA


NBC News published an article discussing two new projects proposed by Prime Minister Theresa May and supposes different ways the projects will be affected by anticipated impact of Brexit.

At first glance, the article appears unassuming, but upon closer examination, a deeper lesson is revealed….
The first project outlined in the article is the construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, an ambitious $22 billion project. Located in one of the world’s largest, most prominent cities, Heathrow is considered to be one of the world’s busiest airports. There is a tremendous congestion issue due to the highly developed infrastructure networks surrounding the airport. A maze of roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, pipelines, buildings, power, and communication line support the airport and neighboring areas. The construction of a new runway at Heathrow would mean that all of this existing infrastructure would have to be re-routed, removed, or reconstructed elsewhere. The combination of a city landscape with massive construction overhaul could have the potential for disastrous results–especially in a city where environmental regulations are among the strictest in the world. In order to accomplish this lofty goal, it is pertinent to seek out advanced construction techniques, along with some of the most innovative civil engineering solutions ever implemented. This will surely be one of the most complex construction projects ever undertaken in Europe.

Construction of this third runway option was not the least expensive approach. Prime Minister May selected this option based on her consideration of numerous socio-economic factors; such as the projected impact on commerce, GDP, job creation, global trade, tourism, and other social benefits. May has firmly stood by this initiative stating that “After decades of delay we are showing that we will take the big decisions when they’re the right decisions for Britain.”

Additionally, the article mentions the construction of a new nuclear power plant west of London, approved by Prime Minister May in September. It is projected that this endeavor will cost approximately $24 billion. Not only is this project costly, but it is also complex. Nuclear power plant construction has seen increasingly more stringent regulations in the post Fukishima era. In fact, I predict there will be unanticipated engineering challenges and cost overruns, as is the case in almost all nuclear plant creation.

In case you have yet to do the math, that’s nearly $50 billion budgeted in new construction approved by Prime Minister May in the past 6 months.

Not only are these projects expensive, they also present some of the most rigorous engineering challenges anywhere. However, the question I pose: who is making the biggest decisions?
There are clearly many big decisions to be made for these projects. For example, it may seem like the biggest decisions will include issues such as rerouting current infrastructure and reconstructing parts of the London Underground, all while allowing for continued operation of the Heathrow airport. Similarly, it would appear the biggest decisions will include concerns arising from constructing a cost-effective nuclear power plant near a population center adversely opposed to any form of nuclear power.

Rather, the biggest decisions to be made regarding these projects are:

  • Will these projects proceed forward in development?
  • Where will they be constructed?
  • What is the timeline for construction?
  • Who is going to pay for them?
  • How will they be financed?
  • Are they beneficial investments for London?
  • How will the return on investment (ROI) be determined?

My final question: who made those decisions? Prime Minister Theresa May, an individual with a Bachelors of Arts in Geography.

We as civil engineers should develop a broader constituency and increased presence among policy and decision makers so that we have a seat at the table for the really big decisions. We deserve more credit. The work completed by civil engineers is more critical to the advancement of society than most people realize. Active involvement and expansion beyond our traditional disciplinary bounds is not only required to more fully leverage the impact of our work in a rapidly changing and complex world, it is critical to our expertise is considered when complex decisions are being made for the Common Good. It is our responsibility to the public to provide leadership that will increase informed decisions.


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