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Bechtel CEO to White House: Infrastructure investment could help save economy

A robust investment in U.S. infrastructure is badly needed and could be the antidote for the economic collapse brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brendan Bechtel, CEO of the major engineering, procurement and construction firm bearing his family’s name, recently put out a statement on the company website in response to the White House request for ideas on reviving the U.S. economy. He was named to the president’s team of advisors for the post-COVID construction/workforce recovery effort.

The coronavirus has taken nearly 50,000 lives and led to a shutdown which is causing double-digit unemployment and leading to scores of bankruptcies by companies.

Bechtel is known as lead contractor on many global power generation projects. Current projects include the Vogtle Nuclear Plant units 3 and 4 expansion, as well as LNG export terminal construction on the Gulf Coast.

Bechtel’s response noted that the U.S. engineering and construction industry produces about 5 percent of national gross domestic product and employs close to three million people. Much of the ongoing projects, however, have been stopped or delayed by impacts of the COVID-19 sweep. Some EPC firms, like countless other companies, have furloughed or laid off many employees.

“Enabling this critical sector of the economy to return to work will do more than help accelerate a near-term return to growth,” Brendan Bechtel said in the statement. “By focusing on infrastructure investments, we can help secure America’s economic competitiveness for the future. Infrastructure investment boosts productivity across all sectors of the economy, reducing delays, lowering costs, and eliminating drags on efficiency that disadvantage U.S. business.”

Some economic experts, noted that the Federal Reserve has dropped interest rates to around zero percent, have argued that this offers a low-cost opportunity to fund building and upgrading the nation’s infrastructure, while also providing decent paying job. The Reserve already has launched nearly $1 trillion in spending on Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities as way of easing pressures on the macro economy.

Bechtel employs about 35,000 people nationwide, and its CEO believes they are ready to go back to work under the right circumstances and with government impetus. Brendan Bechtel also offered several recommendations where the federal government can help ensure a safe return: 1, Establishing widespread test and trace capabilities; 2, increasing public sector demand for projects to offset the retreat in the private sector; and 3, improve the efficiency of project permitting and approvals.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its quadrennial report card last issued in 2017, gave the U.S. a lowly grade of D+ on its infrastructure condition. Energy was also handed a D+, noting much of the nation’s transmission and distribution system was built in the 1950s and ‘60s and not intended to handle development of the new gas and renewables investment.

In addition to Bechtel, some of the nation’s other major EPC firms include Black & Veatch, Burns & McDonnell and AECOM. Many of the EPC companies and content issues will be part of POWERGEN International happening December 8-10 in Orlando.

(Rod Walton is content director for Power Engineering and POWERGEN International. He can be reached at 918-831-9177 and [email protected]).