Expert discusses how technology can help with infrastructure

(The Center Square) — The recent water main breaks in Atlanta garnered national headlines, particularly after reports emerged that some of the pipes that failed were decades old.

Jennifer Perkins, senior government industry specialist at Brightly Software, a Siemens company, shared additional insights in writing with The Center Square about how technology might help with the nation’s infrastructure.

Why do we keep having infrastructure failures?

Much of the U.S. infrastructure was built over 50 years ago, and it has reached or exceeded its expected useful life. It was not designed for the current population, weight of cars, or amount of water needed. Additionally, up until recently, local governments have not had the fiscal commitment to maintain it properly, which further shortens its lifespan.

With roughly 4% of local budgets spent on infrastructure, there is simply not enough money to maintain the existing infrastructure. The recent Infrastructure Report Card highlights that if the funding gap goes unaddressed it could increase from $2.6 trillion in 2023 to $10 trillion by 2039. The country will continue to have infrastructure failures until officials can make a multi-decade commitment.

The nation is $35 trillion in debt and continues allocating millions and billions for infrastructure improvements. Why are there continued infrastructure failures like the water main breaks we saw in Atlanta?

At its core, this is a money and data issue. With much of the U.S.’s infrastructure at the end of its useful life, constituents will continue to see failures that impact services. Each independent authority or asset manager must understand both the age and condition of the assets. Facility Condition Assessments can help, but they are just a point-in-time report.

A better solution is implementing technology, like Internet of Things, which has the ability to routinely inspect and regularly update asset condition. This can better predict an asset’s useful life and allow municipalities to plan three to 10 years ahead. Every public asset owner should have a true account of their assets and a reasonable fiscal repair and replacement plan.

Isn’t infrastructure one of the basic functions of government?

The basic function of government is to deliver services that the community needs at an agreed upon service level. In turn, residents pay taxes. However, the required service level has risen faster than the taxes imposed. People expect more and better services from their town, like better schools, better parks, more playgrounds, and more, which is infrastructure that requires maintenance.

Frankly, the other big issue is that infrastructure isn’t “sexy.” It’s similar to changing the oil in a car – no one really likes spending money on it, but it lengthens the time until it’s necessary to buy a new one. Public assets are no different, but routine maintenance is often neglected due to budget constraints or competing projects.

Residents must change their attitude toward infrastructure, and with it, governments will change their funding priorities. Adding new and shiny assets is fine if the government can continue to maintain them for years to come because once a community has a park or playground, they will not likely give it up.