The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel. The 48-mile, manmade waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is a system of colossal locks that gravity fills and empties to raise ships 85 feet and lower them back to sea level. The structure is a gateway essential to the global maritime trade.

Several years ago, however, it became apparent that the locks needed widened in order to accommodate a generation of larger cargo ships. After a lengthy process, the Panamanian government selected the lowest bid, submitted by Spanish company Sacyr Vallehermoso, and construction began.

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Competing companies and analysts were startled to learn that the Spanish consortium’s budget for concrete was 71% smaller than that of the next lowest bidder, and also used about 25% less for steel to reinforce the concrete. While Sacyr’s low offer seemed like a bargain to some, others knew that it was too good to be true.

As the New York Times reported, in order to withstand the corrosive effects of saltwater, as well as the strain of tremendous weight and pressure, the locks require steel stabilization and a carefully engineered concrete mixture of cement and sand. Without enough cement, the concrete can be porous, but with too much, it can be susceptible to cracking.

Seven years and 5.25 billion dollars later, the locks have been completed. Last week, in fact, the first New-Panamax container ship passed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through the new larger locks. Though the initial passage was successful, significant problems remain and canal officials note that the consequences of an operational shutdown would be catastrophic for global trade. Panamanians are well aware of this possibility and an axiom hangs on their lips: “Lo barato sale caro.” Cheap things end up expensive or, in other words, “you get what you pay for.”

This should serve as a cautionary tale as America begins rebuilding its roads, airports, energy networks, and water distribution systems. Now more than ever, it is imperative that government officials and decision-makers remain cognizant of the fact that cheap infrastructure can prove costly. And so can delayed investment.

A recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers reveals that current investments are not able to keep up with need. As water and wastewater systems across the US continue to age, rising costs of operating and maintaining infrastructure consumes an ever-increasing share of overall spending. The report indicates that at the current projected rate of investment, the capital funding gap within the water sector alone to be about $105 billion. By 2040, it estimates that disparity will increase to $204 billion. In other words, repairing America’s infrastructure is not going to get any cheaper or easier.

Furthermore, Joseph Kane, a researcher at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program told CNBC recently that building new projects has gotten increasingly expensive. For more than a decade, infrastructure-related costs of labor and materials have risen faster than the amount being invested, according to the Congressional Budget Office. While public spending on infrastructure rose by 44% between 2003 and 2014, the purchasing power of that money fell by 9%.

In order to build a solid future, America will have to act swiftly and thoughtfully. It will have to address the exigency of the circumstances and balance meticulous planning, budgetary stringency, and ultra-durable construction for positive long-term results. Rebuilding America’s infrastructure is not going to be cheap or easy. But as with concrete, you get what you pay for.
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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