Column: Reward innovative infrastructure

Tom Doran

Imagine that a water main feeding a town breaks, and not fixing it because there isn’t money in the budget. We’re celebrating a rite of spring in Michigan, meaning the annual pothole, or road crater, rant, and some of these roads are as dangerous as an interruption in drinking water service.

The good news is the great majority of our infrastructure is performing as intended, though out of sight and out of mind, but the bad news is the portion that isn’t is maddening or downright dangerous.

Many communities and governmental agencies are making progress with asset management programs that identify the condition of their infrastructure and help them prioritize, rather than reacting to emergencies. Investigatory techniques and predictive software are advancing rapidly. What we now need are layman-friendly rankings, updated every few years, that inform the public about these conditions, and when critical infrastructure falls below a minimum standard it should be promptly repaired, with the costs reflected in future rates or taxes. In other words, these rates can’t be set at arbitrary levels that have little or no relation to critical needs.

High rate increases to fix infrastructure will increase public pressure to do things differently or innovatively. We should reward innovative approaches that enhance long-term infrastructure performance, and companies that have proven performance histories, rather than seeking the lowest price for engineering and construction. To facilitate more public debate, the state should attach the estimated longevity to proposed repairs. Not all repairs are equal when it comes to the longevity of the fix. We can build roads like the Germans if we are willing to invest more. If not, we must accept infrastructure that wears out sooner.

This can be done, but it takes a mind shift for most communities, states, and engineers. Until then, cue more head shaking and ranting.

Tom Doran is a fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit.