Steel: Forging a future

Steel key ingredient in restoring American infrastructure

Steel: Forging a future
2013-04-07T00:00:00Z Steel key ingredient in restoring American infrastructureBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

The Report Card for America's Infrastructure issued last month by the American Society of Civil Engineers pointed out the gaping holes in our nation's infrastructure, as it has done for years.

America's deteriorating roads alone are sucking $101 million out of the economy in terms of wasted time and fuel, according to the Report Card. More than 200 million trips are taken daily across deficient bridges. The nation's drinking water delivery system is approaching the end of its useful life.

That all averages out to an overall grade of D+ for infrastructure in the United States, according to the Report Card.

That's bad news for the nation. The good news for Northwest Indiana is replacing all that failed infrastructure will take lots of steel. And that job starts with roads and bridges.

"A roadway cross-section contains a tremendous amount of steel, with rebar and such," said Andrew Herrmann, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. "And of course there are a lot of steel bridges in the country."

Herrmann can list the steel needs of basically every other piece of infrastructure that needs rebuilding, including railroads, water treatment, dams, electric transmission and energy pipelines.

A 1973 engineering graduate of Valparaiso University, he is intimately familiar with steel, spending most of his professional career doing bridge design and engineering.

He points out that more ductile,that is, malleable, steels hold particular promise for rebuilding U.S. infrastructure. Those steels, the result of decades of research in the industry, can withstand a greater range of temperature, are less subject to fracturing and hold the potential of lengthening the lifespan of bridge and other projects.

But the barriers to rebuilding America's roads, bridges and pipelines are not technical, Herrmann said.

"It's just failing to invest in our infrastructure," Herrmann said. "That's the base root of our problem."

It all starts with the lack of leadership in Washington. Last year's passage of a two-year highway bill, known by the acronym MAP-21, was really just an exercise in "kicking the can down the road," Herrmann said.

Those inside the steel industry see the problem the same way.

At Midwest Pipe and Rebar Coating Inc., in Schererville, business in epoxy-coated pipe for the oil and gas industry is surging, due to the demand created by the fracking boom. But with rebar used in the road construction industry, it's another story.

The company's plant is only running at about 65 to 70 percent capacity when it comes to rebar. General Manager Joel Chermak echoes Herrmann when it comes to the reason why.

"First of all, they need to pass a highway bill," Chermak said. "Instead, they just keep basically re-upping the one that's in place and don't increase funding. So we just keep falling further and further behind."

On the labor side, they feel the same way.

"We're so far behind on infrastructure in this country and why we don't see it as a real job creator and benefit in this country is beyond me," said Tom Conway, vice president of the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers union.

Virtually all steelmakers locally and many steel processors would have a role in producing the products needed to rebuild America's infrastructure. Those would include companies such as Schererville's Midwest Pipe and Rebar Coating; Industrial Steel Construction, of Gary; Kloeckner Metals, on Chicago's South Side; and Steel Dynamics Structural and Rail Division, in Columbia City, Ind.

Investment in America's electrical grid was a bright spot in the American Society of Civil Engineers' Report Card.

Planned electric transmission lines for the future include NIPSCO's 100-mile, 345-kilovolt Reynolds-to-Topeka line. NIPSCO also hopes to construct a second line of even higher voltage in partnership with other companies.

The high-voltage lines will play a key role both regionally and nationally, serving as a conduit for getting renewable energy produced in the Midwest to eastern markets. NIPSCO estimates the two lines will represent a total capital investment of between $550 million and $700 million.

And a big chunk of that money will be spent on steel for towers and other equipment, according to NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer.

"It's really our nation's electric and energy system that needs to be updated," Meyer said. "And these projects are a prime example of that."

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