Transforming Public Works With Technology (Part 1) – Where We Are Today

Right now, 70,000 bridges in America – roughly 1 out of every 9 – are considered structurally deficient. Similarly, 32% of the major roads are in poor condition according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The fund that supports road maintenance, the highway trust fund, is almost insolvent. For years, the emphasis around infrastructure has been build, build, and build some more. Looking at the current state of the bridges and roads in America, it seems obvious that our focus should have shifted to maintenance a long time ago.

Many of the bridges in the U.S. were built almost 60 years ago, but it was not until 1968 that Congress passed the Federal Highway Act: U.S. Code Title 23 Section 15, which established the National Bridge Inspection Standards (NBIS). Part of the NBIS stated that “All states must perform periodic inspections of bridges greater than 20 feet in span on at least a biennial basis”.

The push for regular inspections was a great start to the process, but is it enough? The U.S was once known for having the best infrastructure in the world, and yet we are currently ranked 16th in infrastructure according to the World Economic Forum. Given that public spending is at its lowest level since 1947, what can we do to change this downward trend? The shift in the regulations surrounding bridge and road infrastructure can help mandate that certain processes are in place, but it is how these mandates are carried out that can make the difference.

Transforming from Building to Maintaining Infrastructure

As a result of these said reforms and industry trends, public works organizations are experiencing a shifted focus from building new infrastructure to maintaining existing infrastructure. This requires a shift throughout the organization. In order to adapt, leadership must help convert staff expertise and workflow processes to be more centered toward preventive maintenance.

Optimizing Scarce Funding

While everyone agrees on the goal of preventive maintenance and improvement, funding plays a major role in how that comes to be. Most of the public works budget is determined by the allocation of tax revenues. Utility fees for services such as waste and water may also provide a continual source of funding paid by the citizens. However, even when handsomely funded, public works organizations have enormous maintenance backlogs across all types of infrastructure – roads, bridges, levees, waterways, parks, etc. This challenge requires them to assess and determine which assets are in the worst condition and require the most urgent attention. While annual progress is made in select areas, other problems roll over into subsequent fiscal years and the bigger picture worsens.

Up against tight budgets and insurmountable to-do lists, one of the most effective methods for public works organizations to ensure the greatest return on investment is by using the right technology to optimize efficiency.

Setting Up Technology for Success

The best technology in world cannot overcome poor processes and planning. The starting point for organizations in charge of maintaining public infrastructure should always begin with an accurate inventory of their existing assets. This inventory must include asset condition, location, and operational and support costs. It’s valuable for the inventory to include an assessment of the most cost-effective way to repair and maintain the infrastructure moving forward.

It’s helpful to break the asset inventory into specific groups and segments for easier management. For instance, the infrastructure used for roads compared to sewers follows different expected lifespans, so it’s advantageous to consider them as separate components when planning for future replace versus repair scenarios.

Think about your organization. How do you stack up? What information tools and processes do you have in place?

To continue to Part II of this series, click here.


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