To Rehab or Reconstruct, that’s the Question

By Donald Brinkman, Director of Engineering, Port of Lake Charles

As the Director of Engineering for the Port of Lake Charles, I spend a lot of my time contemplating the challenge of upgrading aging infrastructure. I am not alone in this regard.  I know that my colleagues feel the same way and often worry about the best way to tackle these port challenges. 

A few years ago, at the port, we reconstructed an old dock that was built in the 1920s.  It served its useful life and then some.  It was designed and constructed to handle the backbone cargo of our port at the time–grain and timber.  Although both are still staples at our port, our cargo mix has changed dramatically over the years.  So, we went back to the drawing board and designed a new modern berth and transit shed that could handle our existing cargoes and could also accommodate new cargos that we can’t define at this time.  That resulted in a $25M project.  Not a bad price tag for what we were able to accomplish, however, when you look at doing this for 6 more docks, your accountant begins asking, “what new revenue are we going to create to fund this infrastructure?”  With this in mind, you start looking at ways to cut costs such as rehabilitation vs reconstruction and try to find ways to reduce the bottom line 

To be honest, reconstruction is always easier. It’s easier to define the work, easier to hire an engineer to design, easier to hire a general contractor, easier to explain to your Executive Director and Board, and easier to budget.  However, it usually costs more than rehab.  The truth is rehab is different and certainly less tangible. Sometimes you can’t even see the improvement (because it’s under the berth).  It’s often an engineering specialty so not everyone is qualified to design and/or construct rehab projects.  The pool of providers is small.  It’s hard to define your scope and convey your project to the Executive Director and Board in a way they can get their arms around.  Heck, sometimes it’s difficult for you to get your arms around even though you are the engineer.  Thus, the rehab option is often overlooked and not embraced as a valid solution.

Thankfully this is an important issue that will be addressed at the upcoming AAPA Facilities Engineering Conference.  It is nice to know that you are not alone and that there are other port engineers with the same concerns.  In fact, this year’s conference, April 24-26 in Jacksonville, Florida will provide the knowledge you need to turn the once destined reconstruction project into a rehab project… saving time and money, while yielding the same desired outcome.  Mark your calendars!