The flooding of both L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard and the UCLA campus back in July put a spotlight on a nationwide concern: the country’s infrastructure is old and more specifically, it is not being repaired or replaced at a rate that matches population growth and demand. With a nation literally treading above ticking time bombs, leaders must look to assess the current state of the infrastructure and what can be done to reduce failure, avoid emergencies, and put already limited budgets to more efficient use.
CBS News: The fight to repair L.A.’s aging infrastructure
“With our budget the way it currently is, we are on a 300 year cycle to replace the smaller pipes.” – Jeff Bray, General Superintendent, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP)
The Status Quo
The water main breaks in L.A. are just an example of what is happening around the country. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Matters article, ‘Aging Water Infrastructure,’ “Every year across the country, there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks. As many as 75,000 yearly sanitary sewer overflows discharge three to ten billion gallons of untreated wastewater, leading to some 5,500 illnesses due to exposures to contaminated recreational waters.”
Surveys and studies reveal that the poor condition of the nation’s water system is a known issue. According to the American Public Works Association’s Infrastructure Facts, “In a survey of city mayors, the number one priority for water systems was aging infrastructure (listed by 60.6% of respondents)” and, “In a 2003 GAO study, 75% of experts identified the distribution system as one of the most vulnerable aspects of drinking water systems.”
Beyond a Busted Pipe
- Loss of life
- Costly downtime for affected businesses
- Costly emergency repairs and the need for federal funds
- Bad press and political bickering
- Fear of the unknown and loss of faith in leadership
In the American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, ASCE gave the U.S. infrastructure a grade of a D+ and estimates it will take $3.6 trillion to improve this grade by 2020. In the face of failures, bad grades and the projected financial need, what can be learned about the condition of the country’s infrastructure today to help us improve the outlook for the future?
Shortsightedness is a common theme in both the public and private sector. Many plans and budgets are made with the current budget cycle, annual report, or political term in mind. In his blog post, 21 Facts About America’s Decaying Infrastructure That Will Blow Your Mind, Michael Snyder says, “Investing in infrastructure is something that has long-term benefits, but these days Americans tend to only be focused on what is happening right now and most politicians are only focused on the next election cycle.” Snyder goes on to list the conditions of America’s roadways, bridges and ports and the staggering funds required to improve them.
Another factor contributing to the situation is the tendency to simply chip away at a problem that seems too big to truly solve. When speaking in trillions of dollars, the sum can seem daunting and federal and state budgets are limited with many projects and interests contending for their share. It’s hard to determine what projects are most critical, what projects can wait, and what projects need to be scrapped.
Know the Needs Today and Tomorrow
Whether condition assessments of our linear assets or models to help create the best estimates are required, the first step is understanding what we’re dealing with today, and more importantly, what we could be dealing with tomorrow. This is key to creating a long-term capital plan. Local, state and federal representatives will need to consider factors like:
- Condition of infrastructure today
- Systems’ life expectancy and risks of failure
- Projected funding needs with adjustments for inflation
- Effects of climate change and population growth on infrastructure
A long-term plan will reduce downtime and unforeseen emergency repairs, and will also lift the fear of the unknown because future needs are being proactively addressed. The ability to look 5, 10 or even 20 years down the road and consider projected needs gives planners a much better handle on what can be done today to be in a better position tomorrow.
Weigh Needs Against Other Initiatives
Once the financial need has been established, it’s time for a dose of reality. Frequently the projected need is well beyond the average yearly budget and even in the unlikely event of budget increases, the entirety of the necessary projects may not be covered. This is when a decision-making or prioritization strategy becomes key. Decision-makers and stakeholders need to be able to agree on what is critical and what expenditures will best prepare the city, state or organization for the future.
Show Me the Money!
The real question for the involved parties is, where are the additional funds going to come from? Estimating the need is only half of the battle; getting even a fraction of a budget increase is the real hurdle. This is when having the right data and telling the right story is crucial. Those seeking funding need to leverage information that supports their plans, like:
- Cost savings due to emergency repair avoidance and bulk purchasing opportunities;
- Improved system condition rating and efficiency gains;
- Improved customer service and public image.
Whether the additional funds come from public-private partnerships or public service rate increases, the trend of highly publicized infrastructure failures will continue until an effective and long-term plan can be put in place.