The power of local government: How cities and counties can solve our nation’s infrastructure crisis
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a report card on America’s infrastructure. The group analyzes 18 infrastructure elements from transit and roadways to energy and broadband.
This year, America’s infrastructure scored a C-. Let’s reflect on that: C- is a near-failing grade. While it is a slight improvement from where we’ve been, we can and absolutely should do much better as a nation and a global leader.
This crisis is bigger than potholes, bumpy roads and bridges that make you nervous when you drive across them. The state of our infrastructure impacts everything from the safety of our communities to the strength of our economy. Investing in our nation’s infrastructure is one of the smartest investments we can make. It helps the United States maintain our position as a superpower, empowers American companies to better compete globally and boosts the quality of life of our residents.
While infrastructure has increasingly become a part of the federal conversation, the heroes of this story are not on the national stage. They’re right in our communities: the city and county leaders who devote their lives to local government operations and maintenance.
You are on the front lines of this high-stakes infrastructure improvement effort. You’re the ones who put in the elbow grease, day in and day out, to steward these critical assets. This is not the stuff of headlines, but it is absolutely the hard work of millions of Americans. When we improve infrastructure at the local level, we shore up our foundation as a country—and ultimately, earn America the A+ grade that is consistent with our position on the global stage.
So, how do we go about making that dream a reality? I believe we need to resist the allure of headline-grabbing construction projects and focus on responsibly fixing existing infrastructure. Clearly, some assets are beyond repair and we will need to make major investments in building new infrastructure to achieve a top grade. But we cannot replace it all.
The most meaningful improvements will come from responsible stewardship of the assets we already have in place—leveraging data and technology to make decisions on which assets to maintain, how to best maintain them, and for how long. This will be complimented by targeted investment in building new infrastructure where it’s necessary. Eighty percent of the cost of infrastructure ownership is in operations and maintenance. If it costs a billion to build, we need billions more to properly operate and maintain that asset in a sustainable way.
The key to smarter infrastructure management lies in operations and maintenance data. Smart cities and counties have been doing this for years: capturing infrastructure data, analyzing it and using it to make informed decisions for future projects and investments. Here are three steps in their playbook that would serve us well if broadly adopted during this infrastructure resurgence:
Keep an accurate inventory of your assets.
Every entity needs to have a clear picture of what infrastructure assets they own, where they’re located and what condition they’re in—along with detailed records on maintenance history and costs. It’s impossible to make data-driven decisions on what assets need attention first if you don’t have a comprehensive inventory in a centralized database.
Once an organization has that baseline information, they’ll be able to layer in preventative maintenance programs to keep infrastructure costs in budget, instead of being caught in a never-ending cycle of fixing what’s broken. As technology continues to evolve, it will do some of this work for us. Self-reporting assets, IoT sensors and other real-time data-capture tools will help us keep our inventory up to date and allow us to address assets before they break—empowering infrastructure owners to make informed decisions faster.
Make preventative maintenance a priority.
Every homeowner knows the importance of routine maintenance. This is even more critical for our roads, bridges, water supplies, playgrounds, facilities and stormwater networks. These complex infrastructure assets need to be properly maintained in order to perform at optimal levels. We cannot underestimate the importance of having plans in place to maintain our existing infrastructure and must do a better job including operations and maintenance expenses in any proposals for new developments.
For inspiration, turn to Canada’s national regulations: Canadian developers must include plans for 10 years of maintenance as part of their construction package submitted for approval. Some developers present an asset management plan for as long as 30 years. With the right technology in place, infrastructure owners can create living preventative maintenance plans and round-trip data to drive efficient infrastructure maintenance.
Keep an eye on environmental sustainability.
For the first time, stormwater infrastructure appeared in the ASCE report card—and it scored a D. With the increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters that we’ve recently experienced, it’s imperative that governments consider what effects a natural disaster could have on existing infrastructure.
Can your city’s stormwater network handle the next 100-year flood? What upgrades or routine maintenance activities must be completed to ensure the system is ready to perform as designed when that storm hits? Are you tracking your assets in a way that you’re set up to easily capture disaster response data and generate a report for FEMA reimbursement? It might not feel like an immediate priority, but when a storm hits, this proactive approach will make all the difference in your community’s ability to recover.
Infrastructure management isn’t glamorous work, but it is incredibly important work. It’s work that many of you have been doing for years—without clear understanding from your residents or support from the federal government.
Thank you for all that you’ve done and all that you continue to do. With continued investment in this area, an increased focus on the importance of operations and maintenance, and widespread adoption of data-driven infrastructure management technology, America will do more than recover and rebuild. We’ll become the global leader in creating safer, more resilient, and more sustainable communities through the optimal stewardship of critical infrastructure. And that’s a grade we can all be proud of.
Attorney turned technologist, Josh Mallamud is a global SaaS veteran with more than 20 years’ experience. As the CEO of Cartegraph, an infrastructure management software company, Mallamud and his team provide a comprehensive cloud-based software platform that helps critical infrastructure owners prioritize maintenance, spend smarter and improve the quality of life of their residents by driving data-driven decision-making.