An infrastructure engineer finds ways to improve and maintain the infrastructure of a town, region or nation. The work can focus on maintaining a number of systems that are fundamental to keeping society working smoothly, such as the electrical grid, railways, sewers, water supply, bridges and highways. An infrastructure engineer also may have to find ways of fixing parts of the infrastructure that have broken down or been destroyed. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, damaged New Orleans’ levees, and a bridge collapse would need similar repair to keep a city and its people safe.
The infrastructure systems of many established cities are aging, which presents a different set of problems for an infrastructure engineer. Pipes that carry natural gas, for instance, are buried underground, and the old maps can be inaccurate as the landmarks above ground change and grow over decades. Before infrastructure improvements can be made, it first becomes necessary to correctly map out the placement of existing pipes.
An infrastructure engineer who is charged with maintaining these systems is frequently challenged by the old age of many of the systems. The older systems were built using outdated methods and designs, and sometimes maintenance has been minimal or nonexistent for decades. The task is often to inspect a bridge or levee with modern equipment and methods, for example, and then to devise ways to bring them up to modern standards of safety.
Sustainable infrastructure engineering focuses on the rehabilitation of the current infrastructure systems with an eye toward sustainability. This means, among other things, that an infrastructure engineer would perform his duties while keeping an eye on how his work affects the environment. In other cases, he may look at how the environment has impacted historic structures, or how best to dispose of waste without causing further environmental damage.
Infrastructure engineer duties vary by project. On one project, an infrastructure engineer may be called on to perform bridge inspections after a flood or earthquake and figure out how to fix any damage, or even inspect a bridge as part of regular maintenance. On other types of projects, the engineer would inspect levees, design better roadways or figure out the best way to upgrade a port or rail terminal.