Neglect is killing American infrastructure
In America, one of our favorite pastimes is complaining about the state of our infrastructure. Every year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reminds us about the poor state of our roads and bridges in their annual report card. Every year, there is a news cycle or two addressing “improved funding” for infrastructure, and every year it is quickly forgotten.
This is not because we don’t have talented civil engineers. We do. We have some of the best universities in the world, and we produce some of the best and brightest. Nor is it because we build things poorly. We make them amazingly well. Our roads, bridges and infrastructure are world class. They’re safe and reliable. And it’s not because we don’t spend enough. Across all levels of American government, we spend approximately $500 billion annually.
So how do we always get such poor grades for our infrastructure?
Great infrastructure needs two key ingredients. The first is planning and building reliable, quality assets like roads and bridges. But the second is the monitoring and maintenance of those assets over their lifespan.
We do the first well. We do the second poorly.
The reason we have poor infrastructure is that we have poor infrastructure management practices. And there are multiple reasons.
Building things is always more fun than maintaining them. We can tangibly see our public expenditures when they deliver new bridges or wider highways. It’s much harder to notice, and therefore harder to appreciate, a road that has lasted 20 years instead of 15 because of good maintenance practices. You simply don’t notice.
Correspondingly, it’s much easier to drum up interest for new projects and starve maintenance activities with budget cuts. Many local municipalities can supplement their local tax revenues with state gas taxes, but few governments and fewer politicians like raising taxes for maintenance. In many places, including the federal level, those taxes are lagging behind even inflation adjustments. It is too hard to sell to the public when it is not accompanied by something new.
Our system pushes the majority of the maintenance burden to local government. American governments rely upon their own local tax revenues and local talent to deliver public infrastructure to their citizens. The majority of our infrastructure is owned and managed at the hyperlocal level – county and below. Nearly 80 percent of roads are owned and maintained outside the state and federal level.
This creates gaps in funding availability and talent shortages, as too few talented asset managers are available for too many government positions. One local government could be excellent at stretching their limited resources to provide good roads and bridges, while the government next door is struggling with equal resources and a similar sized road network.
Not to mention that local governments have overwhelming roles and responsibilities they must fulfill. Since the onset of the pandemic, local governments have struggled as tax revenues fall, costs around healthcare and other life saving activities soar, and the continual daily barrage of local affairs continues. Balancing infrastructure maintenance and those additional responsibilities is hard in the best of times and nearly impossible as the pressure builds in the worst.
How can we turn this around?
We are unlikely to stop appreciating the new bridge or construction project that reduces traffic congestion whose effect is usually temporary anyways. That is just in our nature. However, if we had three sustained policy initiatives, we could begin the process of improving our infrastructure.
First, we need to begin any new project with an eyes-wide-open approach to maintaining, renewing, or rebuilding that asset. In the case of a new bridge, instead of focusing on the cost of construction, we need to begin considering how we’ll maintain that asset over its lifetime. What are the costs for maintenance the public will have to shoulder for the next 10, 50 or even 100 years?
We also need to understand the price today is only for building it once. Infrastructure is the closest thing we have to permanent legacies in our society, so we must also incorporate the cost to rebuild that asset. We should think of the renewal cycle like a permanent annuity. We will spend some amount on this project, every so many years, forever, and then plan accordingly.
Many of our struggling and deficient bridges are the result of building too quickly without an eye towards the public financing required several decades thereafter for reconstruction. Every time we build or add infrastructure, we are foisting a burden onto future generations. We need to be cognizant of what that will look like and then develop around those insights.
Second, we need objective methodologies to better understand the current state of our infrastructure. ASCE expends incredible effort to develop a national report card. This wealth of data has enabled us to understand the problem better, but not to solve it.
If we are going to provide the public with the information needed for their support of infrastructure maintenance, we need better diagnostic and reporting tools that provide an objective and transparent process demonstrating consequences and ramifications of neglected infrastructure. It should be updated continuously and devoid of subjective insights that might skew the data or hamper the public trust.
Without a trusted source of information, politicians will continue to struggle to get voter support around infrastructure. And we will continue to be in the same situation – everyone says they want better infrastructure, but no one wants to pay for it.
And finally, we need dramatic improvements in the processes and methodologies we use to manage and maintain infrastructure at a local level. This must come in the form of technology and software that enable every local government to operate at peak efficiency and stretch their limited resources as best as possible.
This is a tough ask. Many communities have developed their infrastructure processes over many decades, along with a familiarity and comfort with them. However, too many are still susceptible to personnel retirements that dramatically alter the trajectory of maintenance activities.
This is entirely a limitation of institutional knowledge that is the direct result of a lack of technological solutions to manage those processes. While there are certain to be individual differences between communities and their optimal process, the commonalities are overwhelming.
Only by adopting asset management processes based on solid technological solutions can we begin to see local infrastructure improve simultaneously. Indeed, we see this with civil engineering consulting practices that work with municipalities. Their professionalism and expertise, honed across multiple disciplines and multiple local governments, enable far superior practices. By continuing to apply additional technologies to these existing processes, we will see acceleration in the improvement of our infrastructure.
In summary, the American infrastructure predicament is one entirely of our own making, but that just means it can be solved. Local government is truly where innovation happens simply due to the overwhelming pressure they feel.
Necessity is the mother of invention. By continuing to press our politicians at every level, and by educating and informing the public on the critical importance of ongoing maintenance, I truly believe we can stop the cycle of neglect and develop better American infrastructure.
Ben Schmidt has a Ph.D. in Engineering and has extensive experience in bringing machine learning technologies out of the research lab and successfully into the market. RoadBotics has designed a series of products that helps governments manage their roads and public infrastructure assets.