Behavioral guidelines for the Public Works Tourist

Brian Pettet
Director of Public Works
Pitkin County, Colorado
Jennings Randolph Fellow, 2005

This past summer I found myself traveling around Australia as Public Works Tourist (PWT). In 2004 an article in the APWA Reporter requested applications for the Jennings Randolph International Fellowship offered by APWA and the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute to provide an opportunity for APWA members to travel abroad to exchange ideas with international counterparts. This program allowed an American public works director to be a PWT in Australia. The experience provided valuable information that has been used since I returned just a few months ago. I prepared to be a model PWT, but was concerned that the planned trip would result in the desire to have just a few more days.

A model PWT must demonstrate appropriate behaviors before the trip. After I read the application guidelines for the program, I received permission from individuals that would be impacted at home and at work, then completed the application after some online research on Australia and their public works issues. My tour of study was focused on how to effectively mitigate the impacts of growth on public infrastructure. After being notified of the fellowship award, I sought and received additional funding from the Colorado Chapter of APWA and PBS&J (an engineering and transportation consulting firm dedicated to research and creative public works problem solving). The trip was planned with the help of the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA) Chief Executive Officer, Chris Champion.

A successful PWT must exhibit patient behavior given challenges of traveling in unfamiliar lands. This was first experienced at 6:00 a.m. when I arrived in Australia, rented a car, and drove to downtown Sydney on the left-hand side of the road only making left-hand turns en route to the hotel for fear of making a driving error in a jet-lagged state of mind. I spent the first couple days acclimating to the time zone change and adjusting to understanding a language similar and yet distinct from English spoken in the U.S.

  Under Sydney Harbor Bridge

A goal of a PWT is to focus on public works projects, activities, infrastructure and people, while enjoying the environment in which they are found. In contrast to the normal tourists walking on the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge, I found myself under the bridge. The structure completed in 1932 was patterned on New York City's Hell Gate Bridge. Monumental pylons support the 503-meter arch structure that contains the heaviest steelwork of its kind ever constructed. I took time to examine the perpetual bridge painting equipment and related processes.

I was impressed with the pride shown by Sydney in its daily public works activities. A curious PWT must master the behavior of maneuvering a short distance from a public walkway to observe public works operations like "Sylvester the Digester," a tall, steel composting tower that uses heat generated from the metabolic activity of composting to accelerate the decomposition process of organic matter. Of course, a PWT should occasionally take in routine tourist activities, like a tour of the landmark opera house, yet on the way be careful to observe maintenance activities for the facility.

An efficient PWT needs help from local experts. After touring Sydney, I met with Chris Champion in order to learn how some jurisdictions in Australia mitigate the impacts of growth on infrastructure. Chris acted as a private PWT guide and provided valuable commentary on public works questions. We met with organizational leaders from Baulkum Hills Shire (one of the fastest-growing communities around Sydney), Holroyd City, New South Wales Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources and the Sydney Central Business District. All of these meetings provided valuable insight into the operational challenges and successes of current growth-impact mitigation techniques.

The author (in the white slacks) meets with Holroyd representatives and IPWEA Chief Executive Officer Chris Champion (far right).

One difference between New South Wales (NSW) and its U.S. counterpart, Colorado, is the greater degree of control that NSW legislation and judicial findings have over local agencies' ability to mitigate the impacts of development. Local agencies in NSW are enabled and limited by legislation commonly referred to as Section 94, which addresses developer contributions. NSW and other Australian states face many of the same infrastructure funding challenges that face the U.S. states today such as the escalation of construction costs that are exacerbated by implementation delay and inadequate funds received from development contributions or impact fees. One specific issue that distinguishes NSW jurisdictions, like Baulkum Hills, from local U.S. governments is that ongoing land and environmental court decisions are now driving (mostly limiting) how development contributions are managed, charged and utilized. This may be a trend yet to be extensively experienced in the U.S.

A progressive behavior of a PWT is to build relationships with locals and other visitors, especially those possessing close ties to the public works profession. My PWT guide, Chris, and I met with a dozen or so public works officials from New Zealand. I found myself engaged in the highly competitive, playfully antagonistic, and yet friendly neighbor-like relationship between the Kiwis and the Aussies. They share a special part of the world and have a historically complex relationship, like competitive brothers from a close family that end up living next to each other. It was from members of this group that I learned about public works challenges, successes, opportunities, and threats in New Zealand.

A good PWT must always be attentive even in a relaxing environment. After experiencing Sydney and its four-million-plus residents for several days, it was time to escape to a less populated ocean-side resort community in northern NSW. Port Macquarie not only provided a naturally beautiful setting with enormous deciduous trees of all types, but was my first glimpse of a resort town with no traffic lights. Australia seems to have much more efficient methods of facilitating traffic flow than we experience in the U.S. with its ubiquitous traffic control signals. There are between 4,000 and 5,000 roundabouts in the City of Melbourne alone. Its successful response to transportation challenges, as well as its environmentally sensitive approach to providing other public works services, makes Australia a stimulating PWT destination.

  Cairns 2007 booth at the Adelaide conference

An interactive behavior for a PWT is to recognize and respond to opportunities to network, learn, and teach. My PWT adventure extended to South Australia where I attended and presented at the 2005 International Public Works Conference in Adelaide, "the City of Churches." The conference was similar to its APWA counterpart in that public works innovations and current events were covered effectively with plenty of networking opportunities. It, however, was more formal, technically concise, and the daily food/activities were outstanding. It was here that I made many friends (I now have volunteer PWT guides in all regions of Australia, as well as New Zealand) and gained a better understanding of the engineering labor shortage in Australia. Over 50 percent of the engineering work force will retire in the next 10 years, and over 1,700 first-year engineering spots were not filled in Australia's universities last year. This is a trend that, if not changed, will result in an engineering labor crisis within the next decade.

Finally, a recommended behavior for a balanced PWT is to enjoy some aesthetic opportunities and reflect on trip experiences. After the fast-paced conference I relaxed with some of the finest South Australian wine near McLaren Vale. I stayed in Victor Harbor, a small seaside hamlet, and enjoyed freshly-caught fish and oysters. I stopped to pet a lonely pony on a farm in the lush rolling hills outside Adelaide. On the last night of the PWT experience with a long flight scheduled in the morning back to the States, I sat in a pub on the shore in Port Noarlunga and watched the sun set into the Gulf of St. Vincent. Shortly thereafter a local couple came up and said, "You're not from around here are ya, mate" and introduced themselves, as was typical of my PWT experience with local Australian folk. After enjoying a well-prepared kangaroo steak dinner together, I was invited to go ocean fishing the next morning. However, as a well-behaved PWT, I thought through the issues involved in changing flights and then declined, thinking, "If I only had a few more days!"

Brian Pettet is a past president of APWA's Colorado Chapter. He can be reached at (970) 920-5390 or

International Facts

Only 2.5% of the world's water is not salty, and two-thirds of that is trapped in the icecaps and glaciers. Of what is left, about 20% is in remote areas and most of the rest comes at the wrong time and in the wrong place, as with monsoons and floods. The amount of fresh water available for human use is less than 0.08% of all the water on the planet. About 70% of the fresh water is already used for agriculture, and the report says the demands of industry and energy will grow rapidly. The World Water Council report estimates that in the next two decades the use of water by humans will increase by about 40%, and that 17% more water than is available will be needed to grow the world's food... The commission concludes that "only rapid and imaginative institutional and technological innovation can avoid the crisis." - BBC News, "Water arithmetic 'doesn't add up,'" 13 Mar 2000

An estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide lack clean drinking water and 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation. Targets adopted by the United Nations in September 2000 aim to halve these figures by 2015; but projections suggest those goals, which would require more than 100,000 people every day to be connected to clean water supplies, will not be met. - Patricia Brett, "Water supply bogs down in complexity," International Herald Tribune, 20 Aug 05

Cultural Proverbs

"Man is not an aquatic animal, but from the time we stand in youthful wonder beside a spring brook till we sit in old age and watch the endless roll of the sea, we feel a strong kinship with the waters of this world." - Hal Borland (1900-1978), Sundial of the Seasons, 1964
"Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans." - Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997)

"Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life." - John Updike, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, 1989  

"Filthy water cannot be washed." - West African proverb

"Foul water will quench fire." - English proverb