Norma Jean Mattei, Ph.D., P.E., F.SEI, F.ASCE is professor and past chair at the University of New Orleans’ (UNO) Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She has been active in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) for more than 20 years in local, regional and national leadership roles and was elected by the Society’s membership as the 2017 ASCE President.
In 2012, President Obama named Mattei one of three civilian members of the Mississippi River Commission, which researches and provides policy and work recommendations covering flood control, navigation and environmental projects. In that capacity, she helped oversee a drainage basin that covers 41 percent of the nation. The governor of Louisiana appointed her to the state’s licensing board for professional engineers — LAPELS. She also serves on the board of directors for both the Louisiana Transportation Research Center Foundation and the Louisiana Technology Council.
Mattei earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1982 and a doctorate in 1994, both from Tulane University.
2017 Report Card: the Good, the Bad and the Transit
First I’ll tell you about the poster child for what we should be doing—so that’s rail. So in rail, last time in 2013, the grade was a “C+” and rail jumped up over “B-” and now it’s a “B.” That’s because freight rail, which is privately owned—a lot of private investment, so billions of dollars each year put into rail, and the grades show it…Then you look at our worst performer, which is transit. Transit is sitting at a “D-.” It went down since 2013, and one of the issues is we’re just not maintaining—so we’re deferring maintenance—on our transit lines…So we’re waiting until things get to the point where they’re almost broken, and deferred maintenance means that it costs more to get it back into good condition than if you just put a little bit of money in every year and maintained it properly.
We’re Not Living up to Our Responsibilities
I think one of the problems is we have gotten into the habit of just waiting until things break, and when you have many sectors at a “D,” it just takes one major event to shut something down and have something fail. And then we throw a lot of money at it. But that’s not a wise way of handling things, because when you’re dealing with a disaster, you’re throwing four times the money at what is now broken, instead of maintaining something in a condition that’s at least average condition.
Water Pipes and Water Funding – Both Broken Systems
…You can’t not have water. We all use it, just like surface transportation, but a lot of the distribution systems for water are underground, out of sight, out of mind, until we have a water main break. We’ve got old, leaky systems that are leaking out drinking water…Another issue with drinking water is if you look at communities across the country, there’s a very big variation between what is charged for drinking water. So in some areas we’re subsidizing clean water—and by subsidizing clean water, you’re not even covering the cost of cleaning it, much less properly maintaining the plant and the distribution system.
It’s up to Citizens to Demand Better Infra
Voters just have to let their elected officials know that this is important to them, because when voters talk to elected officials, they listen. So if enough people who vote tell them, “Hey, we’ve got to make this a priority,” it’s going to happen. And another thing is, we’re just going to have to pay for it; there’s no money tree out there, no magic infrastructure fairy that’s going to wave a magic wand and grow money for infrastructure. We have to pay for it.
Advocacy is a Vital Aspect of the Engineering Profession
The civil engineers are the ones that understand this infrastructure, because we’re the ones that plan, design, construct and operate and maintain it. So we know the condition and we have to stop sitting in our offices and being worried and start advocating…ASCE does a good job of this; they actually educate the engineers on what bills are moving right now that impact infrastructure, and then set up appointments with their elected officials. And so they’ll sit down with their elected officials, face to face, and talk about specific bills and specific solutions, like raising the gas tax.