Viewpoints

Aging infrastructure: how municipalities can make smart upgrades with community support

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By Paul Marshall

Finding practical solutions for upgrading aging infrastructure is among the largest hurdles faced by municipalities across the U.S.. Infrastructure clearly needs to be addressed, as evidenced by the American Society of Civil Engineers and its recently released 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, which rated our nation’s overall infrastructure at a D+. 

What’s unclear is how to solve this challenge, especially given financial constraints, inter-related infrastructure systems and competing priorities. Fortunately, municipalities can leverage upfront assessments and ongoing planning in building community support to successfully address any infrastructure upgrades.  

As we look to evaluate the status of a community’s infrastructure, it’s important to consider ratepayers as a key group to educate about the why, what, when, and how of infrastructure improvements and investments. 


Assess the current status of your infrastructure 
While infrastructure is commonly given a 30- to 50-year service life, a facility, sewer, road, or bridge might need a thorough assessment to determine its accurate longevity. This assessment includes a long-term evaluation of its performance, including the frequency of problems or shutdowns. Every city, street and block are different. Consequently, there may be a multi-faceted approach in deciding if a system needs to be upgraded, replaced and when. 

One method of identifying and prioritizing infrastructure projects is to incorporate data sets into the decision-making process using, for example, a big data platform. The platform not only shows the locations of existing and future projects, but incorporates any problem points, such as spills, overflows or water quality complaints. Organizing this data to develop a clearer picture of infrastructure priorities, current projects and future challenges can help in project prioritization and gives municipalities the advantage of data as a compelling tool when showcasing the need for infrastructure investments. 

Additionally, Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors can provide real-time information on current operational statuses, identify issues, and help provide additional data that allows teams to better manage assets and the overall system.  

The ongoing use of assessments is critical in building the case for infrastructure improvements or upgrades, while enabling effective identification of potential problems or symptoms of a system failure. These findings can pinpoint the necessary improvements and serve as a starting point for open dialogue and education with ratepayers. 

Analyze the findings
There are a variety of factors that can cause the performance of a system to decline, including weather, heavy usage, population growth, age and ongoing maintenance. When commissioning an assessment, examine the long-term performance, taking note of how often each system is experiencing issues and causing any problems for the community. The key is to tackle the problem before the system is no longer usable to prevent community leaders from rushing into an upgrade or fix that might not be the most sustainable long-term solution.


Consider ratepayers at each step 
Findings from the assessment leads community leaders to develop a short-term or long-term strategic plan for improving infrastructure, and the resulting plan must take into account any potential impact on ratepayers. 

Gaining buy-in from ratepayers for infrastructure spending can be a challenging task.  Most community water and wastewater infrastructure is hidden underground and therefore “out-of-sight-out-of-mind.” The cost of utility service, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has increased 2 to 3 times the rate of inflation since 2000 and median income has generally failed to keep pace.  As communities consider their long-term investments in infrastructure, they can help minimize thefuture rate increases by engaging in a process that prioritizes investments while optimizing capital costs and structure.  

When communities clearly showcase the cost benefit analysis associated with the alternatives designed to keep ratepayer costs low, it can positively impact community acceptance. Communicating findings from financial analyses can be a very powerful tool when prepared in a thoughtful, accessible fashion for ratepayers. 

Engage with the community early and often in the process. Be prepared to answer questions about any rate increase immediately and understand that many citizens consider access to clean drinking water and safe roads an everyday right of living in that community. 

As community leaders and local governments continue to take steps to address infrastructure issues, it’s important to understand and identify a process for making the right upgrades, versus a quick fix. Always include the community at each step of the process. After all, we are members of the community too.

 

Paul Marshall is the California region sector lead for water resources at MWH, now part of Stantec. He has nearly 30 years of engineering experience at various public agencies. 

Jason Mumm, financial strategic advisor, and John Abrera, vice president of integrated water solutions, at MWH, now part of Stantec also contributed to the completion of this article. 

 

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