Has COVID-19 reached the point of seeming endlessness?

Sept. 8, 2020

This column published as "So What Happens Now?" in September 2020 issue of Roads & Bridges

I have begun to question the value of trend data in our industry. 

Infrastructure starts are down. Or are they up? How large or small is the test base? The coronavirus has delayed projects. No, its effects are minimal; projects are proceeding. Every week, news items flood my inbox making conflicting claims. Which is why I don’t run any of it. I’m having a trust issue with such things.

One notable exception is a multi-part survey compiled by research firm Tensar, which I ran in partnership with them. It limns in its eight respective parts several key questions regarding coronavirus’s impact on the transportation industry. But rather than being the result of a blank questionnaire or aggregated “data,” the results here were the simple and direct reflection of a select group of shot-callers in various subsegments of transportation, speaking from direct experience. I tend to prefer that type of thing. It is the primary reason I have eschewed the kind of “state of the industry” overtures so many other outlets have been pouring into the digital ether. Not that those lack value, not altogether; there is merit in gauging the temperature of one’s audience. However, the margin of error is rather great. Predictions are tough to substantiate, even tougher to qualify when the source of such predictions largely remains covert. (You never really know who the respondents are; you just get percentages in neat-looking infographics.) The more personal alternative is a narrower pool of response, but a more honest one. A professional professing professionally. 

In the eight-part series in question, leaders from DOTs, contracting and design firms large and small, and transit agencies unpacked what everyone can’t help but call “this new normal.” I can’t flesh it all out here, but one refreshing aspect that resulted is that no one, not a one, really knows what that actually means—the new normal. Perhaps because we are too deep yet in the weeds to find dry and level ground to establish a foundation. Perhaps because what constitutes the idea of a new normal will simply be different for different areas of the country, different means of operations, different pieces in the greater transportation puzzle. Or perhaps there won’t be a new normal at all; maybe when we’ve reached an acceptable measure of safety and insulation, people will rush back to the ways things had been done before all this business began.

I cannot say either way, and I get uneasy with trafficking in conjecture. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t see one just now, though eventually, inevitably, one will present itself. In the meantime, I would encourage you to—once you’ve finished this issue of R&B—find the “Web Exclusives” section of our website and peruse this survey series. It is sure to spur good constructive thought as to your own particular situation, whatever that situation may be, and perhaps serve as a palliative to uncertainty. Not by means of concrete (or asphalt!) solutions, but as a gesture toward the universality of uncertainty. The common ark we are all huddled in.

One remark stands out, from Rogers Group Inc. VP Nick DiBartolo: “The focus on ... our safety and health program is stronger than ever. We have no company without our employees and our customers.” Good words to begin and end on. Bravo. 

About The Author: Budzynski is senior managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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