The construction industry saw major news break in the second half of 2016. Here are a few of the stories from the past several months that are still generating industry buzz. And if you missed our article looking at the biggest stories of the first half of 2016, check it out here.
Donald Trump's victory and a potential infrastructure spending boost
After a contentious election, President-elect Donald Trump won at the ballot box in November. His $1 trillion infrastructure plan propped up the hopes of the construction industry, and construction stocks shot up after he won. Trump's plan, though light on details, involves trading an 82% tax break for private equity investment in revenue-generating infrastructure projects.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that Congress could come together in 100 days to pass an infrastructure spending bill but warned that the "gimmick" of tax breaks in exchange for investment would be a nonstarter. Soon after, piling onto the issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he would oppose anything that was similar to a stimulus plan.
As lawmakers begin to pick sides, Trump's team has also said he could potentially establish an infrastructure bank, a strategy proposed by Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton that was widely panned by his staff during the campaign.
MD's stalled Purple Line light rail
One of the most ambitious transportation projects in Maryland history — and the state's most expensive project ever — was days away from a $900 million Federal Transit Administration payday when U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon rescinded both the FTA's and the Maryland Transit Administration's approvals for the Purple Line light rail project in June. His decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by Chevy Chase, MD, residents and other local advocates who challenged the project on several issues, including the ridership numbers that project officials submitted to gain initial approval.
The 16-mile suburban Maryland Purple Line based its estimated number of riders on the assumption that 25% of them would come from the Washington, DC, Metro system. However, officials did not include the declining ridership projections for the Metro amid service and safety concerns in its analysis. Maryland transit officials now must wait on an additional review by the FTA to determine if another environmental impact application is necessary, a process that could push construction back another six months and potentially scuttle the project altogether.
Prior to the legal challenge, the Purple Line had been touted as one of the largest public-private partnerships in U.S. history and the second such project to include private financing.
Construction's high suicide rate
The construction industry was left reeling by a new report in July from the Centers for Disease Control, which found that it had the second-highest suicide rate of all the industries they studied. In fact, the construction suicide rate in 2012 was more than four times the national average.
The CDC pointed to the stigma of seeking professional help for depression and other mental health issues as a contributing factor to this statistic. In addition, the makeup of the construction workforce — risk-taking, white, male shift workers with a high incidence of substance abuse — is the same as that of those that are at high risk of suicide in the general population.
A few groups like the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention — spearheaded by the Construction Financial Management Association — have rolled out initiatives to educate construction companies and workers on the signs of someone who is at risk for suicide and how to reach out to them.
FAA's commercial drone rules
The Federal Aviation Administration's drone regulations went into effect in late August, officially setting out specific rules for operations, but, more importantly getting rid of the ambiguity that had been pervasive in the industry up until then. The FAA no longer requires a licensed pilot operate drones, allowing instead anyone older than 16 who has passed a licensing test that privilege. The agency did limit operation in certain ways, however, including:
- Drones must weigh less than 55 pounds and come equipped with anti-collision lights.
- Operators must not take drones higher than 400 feet and must keep speeds at 100 mph or slower.
- Drones are not allowed to be flown over people, and the operators must always keep the drone in their line of sight.
The FAA has developed a waiver application process, which agency officials said will help shape future revised drone rules. For instance, the FAA should probably expect waiver requests from construction companies that want to fly drones over work sites where there are construction workers below.
President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for transportation secretary, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, also bodes well for the future loosening of drone regulations, as she is reportedly known for a soft regulatory hand.
OSHA's fine increase
In August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration changed its penalty structure for the first time since 1990, raising its fines by 78%. This year's budget bill required agencies like OSHA to bring its penalty amounts in line with the Consumer Price Index. Safety advocates welcomed the new measure, as they have criticized the lower penalties for years, and said they hoped the increased fines would help deter employers from violating safety procedures. On the other hand, some industry representatives have expressed concern with the fine increases, which they said could be a burden on small businesses.
Some contractors, particularly those with fall violations or excavation violations, have already seen fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The industry can also expect the fines to keep rising, as another condition of the bill is that federal agencies keep pace with future increases in the CPI.
Mass-timber construction's growth
It was all about wood in the second half of 2016, with two buildings in North America achieving significant milestones. In September, the tallest wood building in the world topped out at the University of British Columbia — the 18-story, $39-million Brock Commons residence hall. In addition to cross-laminated timber (CLT) the structure, which is expected to be complete in September 2017, also utilized a concrete foundation, concrete stair cores, steel connectors and a steel-beam-and-decking roof.
In the U.S., crews completed the first mass timber building in the country in November, the seven-story, 220,000-square-foot T3 (Timber, Technology, Transit) office building in Minneapolis. The spruce-pine-fir nail-laminated timber (NLT) panels and spruce glulam components were mostly derived from Pacific Northwest trees that did not survive infestation by the mountain pine beetle, adding to the green elements of the structure.
While other ambitious wood building designs are on the drawing board in London, Sweden and even Chicago, these buildings represented significant, tangible accomplishments in the field of wood high-rise design.
Zika's impact on job sites
The emergence of the mosquito-borne Zika virus in southern Florida sparked major concern among outdoor construction workers in the state's hot humid areas and created panic nationwide. Florida construction companies in the areas of infection and beyond got busy making their construction sites safer by eliminating standing water, spraying outdoor areas to kill insects and requiring employees to wear protective clothing and use mosquito repellent.
New Jersey's highway construction shutdown
After New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and state lawmakers agreed to a gas-tax increase of 23 cents as a way to replenish the state's Transportation Trust Fund, they continued to squabble over what kind of budget action the state would take to counterbalance the tax hike. Democrats balked at Christie 's insistence on a 1% drop in the state sales tax, so at the beginning of July, he declared the TTF empty and shut down approximately $3.5 billion of highway work.
Until the two parties reached an agreement in October — which eventually included a scaled-down sales tax reduction — there were a series of failed negotiations, during which Christie relented and allowed some emergency roadwork to continue. By the time the gas tax was enacted, construction companies and workers were left wondering how they were going to survive the effects of three months of little to no work, particularly with the seasonal winter shutdown looming ahead.