February 22, 2017 | EnviroStructure

Funding Our Infrastructure Maintenance Backlog Before the Next Crisis

The shocking images out of California of the near-failure of the Oroville Dam have once again shined a light on essential, aging American infrastructure. Damage to the nearly mile-long spillway and threatened complete breach of the dam’s “emergency spillway” (really just the side of the hill adjacent to the man-made structure) led to the mandatory evacuation of nearly 200,000 people. As of this writing, water levels behind the dam have stabilized, but new storms in the short term and the expected spring melt in the longer term may once again threaten adjoining communities with devastating flooding.

Much less frightening, but equally important, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) just published its updated list of “structurally deficient” bridges. Over 55,000 bridges nationwide meet that definition, which includes facilities that need anything from substantial engineering upgrades to complete replacement. Although this is hard to believe, ARTBA estimates that nearly one in four bridges (over 170,000) are at least 50 years old and have never had major reconstruction work!

One of the highest-profile bridges in desperate need of repair is the Memorial Bridge, one of the DC metropolitan region’s most crucial route to downtown. The bridge’s foundation is literally crumbling, with nets installed to catch pieces as they fall from the structure. The National Park Service is responsible for that facility, and while efforts have been made recently to appropriate the necessary funds for major renovations, the money isn’t all there, and work has not started.

In the case of both the Oroville Dam and the Memorial Bridge, federal, state, and local officials take emergency measures when needed, but spend most of their time praying that nothing truly catastrophic takes place. While I’m all for guidance from above, that’s hardly a way to manage public infrastructure.

Perhaps these high-profile cases highlight the biggest challenge facing political leaders trying to coalesce around the best way to fund an infrastructure program and how much to dedicate to the effort. The popular projects are often the ones that result in a brand new facility, complete with the requisite ribbon-cutting ceremony. Your basic maintenance and renovation projects, in contrast, usually get more attention for the interruption of service or road detours they create, and certainly don’t result in a ribbon-cutting. (The project slogans are catchy, though – “We’re making it wider for you and your rider!”)

Ask any infrastructure executive in any sector if they would prefer to build something new to add to their inventory or increase maintenance budgets to repair the things already built, and I suspect they would almost unanimously choose the latter. Yet, maintenance projects remain stubbornly unsexy.

At least so far, there does not appear to be an appetite on Capitol Hill for a major infrastructure spending bill along the lines of the Recovery Act passed at the beginning of the Obama administration. Most of the attention has been focused on tax reform and incentivizing private infrastructure investments, although Democrats have offered more of a traditional public financing proposal. The amount? A trillion dollars has been bandied about, definitely a nice, round number. The reality is that our country faces a multi-trillion-dollar deficit in infrastructure maintenance. How should politicians solve this policy conundrum? I have a modest proposal:

Concentrate on tax reform and incentives in the first instance. Freeing up capital and encouraging public-private partnerships has long been the goal of both parties. In exchange for that deal, however, Congress should be willing to offer up what I’ll call a “Maintenance Match” program for states and localities that direct spending to a variety of renovation projects. For every dollar that the states spend on priority maintenance projects (as defined by long-standing lists from groups like ARTBA and the American Society of Civil Engineers), the federal government will match it, two for one. This way, states may bite the bullet on difficult budgetary decisions if they know they could actually reduce some of their lengthy maintenance backlog.
The benefits of such a deal could be enormous. Construction jobs are created; vital infrastructure is improved; public health and safety is protected; and the inevitable political wrangling over what shiny, new projects to build is avoided.

It shouldn’t take the specter of a failing dam or the closure of a vital transportation artery to reach this compromise. Maintenance may indeed be boring, but I predict voters will readily accept the taxes necessary to support boring over evacuations, flooding, and hair-raising commutes.