Defense Media Network

Chief of Engineers and Commanding General Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp Interview

What does the ARRA mean to USACE?

Frankly, it’s a shot in the arm for the Corps. As a bit of historic background, this is the fourth stimulus package our country has had. The first came in the 1920s with President Hoover. Then in the 1930s, there was another with President Roosevelt during the Depression.

With an increased workload and a rapidly changing environment, Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp says it’s “a great time to be in the Corps!” Photo courtesy of USACE.

There was a package in the 1950s with President Eisenhower to do the Federal Highways, and now this one. Most of this country’s infrastructure was built during either the Roosevelt or Eisenhower eras. If you go to one of our 241 locks, they were generally built in the 1940s and 1950s. So a lot of this infrastructure needs work.

The civil works package of the stimulus plan, particularly in the water resources area, is allowing us to do much-needed maintenance and construction. That’s what it means to the Corps. It means that our facilities are going to be more reliable over the long haul. When you get to be 50, 60, 70 years as a mechanical system, you need to be maintained. That will be a big help. Half of the $4.6 billion for civil works is for operations and maintenance. We have 926 harbors, 610 dams, and 12,000 miles of inland waterway. This stuff takes maintenance. A number of our dams really need rehabilitation. The stimulus gives us an opportunity to take care of high-risk items like this.

When our people see maintenance money roll in that they can do something with, it’s like the cavalry’s coming. About $2 billion of the civil works package is for construction projects. These are, by and large, projects that were already authorized and appropriated by Congress in previous bills. Often, a civil works project will be funded at what you might call the low end, far below the capability of the Corps to complete it in any given year. But this funding will allow us to run faster. If you take a project which could be done in two years when fully funded, and you stretch it out to 10 years, it costs you a lot more. It also keeps your risk hanging out there for an extra eight years. This will allow us to accelerate a number of projects we had the capacity to do, but not the funding.

How is the Corps responding to the extra workload ARRA represents over and above the already authorized plans for 2009?

Putting the stimulus package atop what already is a huge workload means you need to find out what your real capacity is. The 3,200 people we’ve already hired are the cavalry. They will be able to bridge the gap and get us through. The art of this is the scheduling of these projects. We know the workforce we’ll need to get particular projects done, so a project manager will look at a project and come up with the workforce required to do it. That recommendation is put into a system and when all the projects are evaluated and plugged into the system in a given district, they can push a button and have an idea of where frictions lie, where you’ve got more work to do than people to do it. Then you have the option of contracting some of that work, rehiring retirees, or sliding one of those projects out until you relieve that workload mismatch.

What is the status of USACE as you look ahead to 2010?

We’re well positioned for what’s on our plate right now. We have a few things winding down in the next couple of years. One is our BRAC work in the military programs area. The deadline for completion of those BRAC projects is 2011, so this is a huge year in military construction. But all of the stimulus projects are scheduled, and we know where we want to go. Now it’s a matter of executing them with quality. I’m very encouraged. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in the Corps. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that we have over 300,000 contractors working for the Corps now, so this effort is not just our 35,000-person team. We have a lot of partners working with us on this unprecedented workload, and we will “get ’er done!”

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...