Inheriting Infrastructure?

At a recent conference I was listening to a presentation by the Army Corps of Engineers explaining the investments made over the last 80 years.  Subsequent presentations discussed that the need to reinvest in infrastructure appears to be about 3.6% of infrastructure value per year, but that the US is spending about 2.4%.  The best condition of our infrastructure was in the 1980s, but decreases in reinvestment due to funding limitations has caused an ongoing decline in infrastructure value, which is why the ASCE report cards show most of our infrastructure at the D or D- level.  It is getting old and it needs repair and replacement.  You would rarely buy a house, never maintain it, and expect it to live in it without problems for 50 years.  Roofs leak, pipes need replacing, mechanical equipment, lights and appliances fail.  It is the cost of owning a home. You have to update.  Most times the new equipment is more efficient that the old stuff, saving money.  So why do we do this with infrastructure?

More interesting was the response to how some of these agencies may deal with this backlog of deferred maintenance.  So far I have heard the Corps, state transportation agencies, state land agencies and another federal government say that they are figuring out means to prioritize the assets and dispose of those not needed.  So let’s see how that would work and I kid you not, these are suggestions:

  •          Abandon state roadways and let local governments deal with them.  Of course these are roads that are challenged – like they flood constantly and the cost to raise them is cost prohibitive, but the city has development along the corridor
  •          The state has low value wetlands they will donate to the underlying county – not that you can do anything with this land- it is not developable, but needs to be monitored and maintained
  •          There is a waterway that has leaking dikes but serves very few people.  Let’s give it to the local community as they are the only ones who use it.
  •          We have monitoring equipment, but it really provides more information locally that regionally, so let’s give it to them 

Hey I like the idea of giving, but seriously, how does the “recipient” deal with this problem.  The low value assets are low value because they serve limited people and are deemed to have little economic or useful value or are too expensive to maintain.  So what does the recipient do with it?  They do not have nearly the resources that larger governmental entities have, and if the big guys cannot find the money, will locals?  Are we just kicking the problem to the next guy?  Sounds like used car sales to me.

It sounds suspiciously like the argument I have heard several times from a city manager who talked about cutting the size of local government, only what he did was contract with other entities to do the services, which means cuts in employees for his city, but the cost is just transferred to another entity.  The rate/taxpayers will foot the bill unless the service is completely discontinued.  In his case, they all paid more.

The State of Florida and the federal government have both cut employees and both contract heavily for services that never used to be contracted.  There is a whole industry of contracting for government work that used to be done in-house.  In other words, they privatized portions of the operations.  But did the cost of government decrease in either case?  No. 

So going back to the initial question – will governments abandon infrastructure?  The answer appears to be yes, but the problem is that that infrastructure IS being used by people so the reality of full abandonment is impossible.  The result will be that underlying local entities will be stuck with the bill.  Planning is needed.  “Fail to plan = Plan to fail” as my friend Albert says.  We need to identify where these “gifts” may occur and identify a means to deal with the inherent obligation that goes with them.  For water and sewer utilities, waterways and roadways are of particular concern, but so could watersheds and well sites. 



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