The American public is routinely bombarded with messages about the need to spend vast sums of money on infrastructure, drumming the subject into the public consciousness, promoting an often rehearsed-sounding catalog of new capital projects. The need is indeed great, but so is the importance of spending wisely. That means emphasizing the lifecycle management of infrastructure assets.
President-elect Trump says his plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure projects over 10 years would be paid for by leveraging public-private partnerships and encouraging private investment through tax incentives. Infrastructure spending is a priority Trump shares with congressional Democrats, who have said they believe they can work with him on the Augean task of renewing America’s infrastructure.
What is often overlooked is that infrastructure spending is not just about new construction, but the maintenance of existing assets. Timely lifecycle management and maintenance is needed to extend the service lives of infrastructure assets in a state of good repair and significantly reduce overall costs. The rationale is to avoid the high cost of reconstruction and replacement that results from deferred maintenance.
Political leaders frequently say that stewardship of infrastructure assets is essential for economic growth. But the evidence suggests that many of them don’t believe it. They are predisposed to defer maintenance because their concept of the future extends no further than the next election cycle, and initial timeframe for infrastructure assets to show the effects of irreversible deferred maintenance is much longer than their likely terms in office.
Consider, for example, that large sections of the Washington D.C. transit system are out of service because maintenance has been shortchanged over decades. Service quality declines substantially when maintenance is deferred. Here in Boston, MBTA maintenance has been underfunded for so long that it will take years to eliminate a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog even though the T plans to devote $870 million to the cause this year.
Also, public officials all too frequently understate the true costs of infrastructure projects by focusing on what they cost to build and ignoring operation and maintenance.
Another factor contributing to the failure to maintain infrastructure assets is that highway funding arrangements, for example, traditionally favored capital expenditures for new construction. As originally established by Congress, the Federal-Aid Highway Funding Program specified that Federal Trust Fund grants would cover up to 80 percent of the cost of new construction and subsequent reconstruction or replacement.
But state and local governments had to bear operating and maintenance costs. When highway links inevitably wore out before their time, state and local governments only had to worry about coming up with 20 percent of the total sum from their capital budgets since federal construction grants covered the rest, so maintenance was not a priority.
All but forgotten in this dubious calculus were costs incurred by motorists who had to struggle with increasingly decrepit highways, as well as plenty of congestion when highway lanes were closed for restoration; an inconvenience, any driver knows, that always last much longer than advertised.
Although later reauthorization bills made federal funds available for rehabilitation, renewal, and reconstruction at levels comparable to new construction, the damage had already been done. Today the advanced deterioration of the nation’s highway system is testament to the consequences of deferred maintenance.
The price tag for renewing America’s infrastructure is astronomical, and comes at a time when a federal funding regime dependent on insufficient fuel tax revenues is least able to afford escalating construction and maintenance costs.
Going forward with a big infrastructure package and setting aside, for the moment, the issue of finding the cash to do it, there needs to be an emphasis on the lifecycle management of infrastructure assets. The health care industry understands that it is far less expensive to keep a patient well than to treat them once they become sick; the same is true for our nation’s infrastructure.
Originally Published: December 10, 2016