Have you ever thought about how much public infrastructure affects your quality of life? When it’s in good condition and operating correctly, you turn on a faucet and clean water flows. You flip a switch and the lights come on. You commute safely to work on (mostly) smooth roads and across safe bridges. Your home remains dry thanks to levees, storm drains and dams that prevent flooding. You access the world more safely with the help of sidewalks and streetlights. The list goes on and on.
For the most part, however, we take our infrastructure for granted. We assume it will all work just as it’s designed to. From streets and bridges to water mains and wastewater treatment plants, the truth is, we’re in serious trouble when it comes to our infrastructure. It’s something everyone — regardless of political affiliation — can agree on.
According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card 188 million trips are taken across structurally deficient bridges daily and 15,500 high-hazard dams have the potential to cause loss of life in the event of failure. We saw what happened in Minneapolis when the I-35 bridge collapsed and again in New Orleans when levees breached. When infrastructure fails, it is 100 percent a public safety issue.
While infrastructure maintenance is by far the most efficient path to fiscal responsibility with what we already have — you can’t cut a ribbon on a maintenance project. And goodness knows we love to cut ribbons. We all know infrastructure maintenance isn’t sexy and it’s not where politicians put the money.
Take the recent Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America for example. While it is a worthy legislative priority to take care of our nation’s infrastructure — which in some cases will require rebuilding — the plan attempts to funnel a majority of a $1.3 trillion investment into mostly new infrastructure. The maintenance of these new assets will fall to states in future years, but funding for year-over-year maintenance continues to decline.
The reality is, building new infrastructure instead of investing in preventative maintenance and repairs is just like buying a new car instead of taking care of your vehicle with regular oil changes and routine upkeep. It’s an unnecessary waste of resources.
So, we still have to eat the elephant in the room: How do we address the maintenance? It’s easy to see our infrastructure crisis is turning into a public safety crisis and we must rethink how we approach the problem. We need to disrupt and intervene — but how?
If you’re reading this as a concerned citizen, it’s time to get involved. Demand data as the driver for decisions that affect your city, county, or state infrastructure. Encourage your neighbors to become more informed and engaged. Ask your community leaders, “How is infrastructure tracked and maintenance planned? How much local funding is going to maintenance vs. new infrastructure?” Demand a seat at the table and learn how these decisions are being made. You have the right to ensure the stewards of your taxpayer dollars are prioritizing projects that stretch dollars and make sense for your community.
If you’re a government employee, start or improve your community’s asset management plan. Invite the community to participate in the process and educate them. Demo asset management tools that easily track and visualize data. Host public works days with your local media to showcase examples of community infrastructure challenges and successes. Connect with your residents through community engagement apps that help keep an eye on infrastructure. Demand clarity in the decision-making process, and support funding processes that prioritize tax dollars correctly.
The point is, we can all be part of this process. We can address a growing national maintenance crisis. It is, quite simply, smart government. In my experience, the voices of a handful of persistent and informed residents are enough to sway almost any local government body. So, I ask you to join us: It’s time for an urban intervention. For a suburban intervention. For a government intervention. And, it’s going to take all of us.
As a government performance and innovation coach with Cartegraph, Nick Kittle leads local governments through their high-performance journey and empowers them to build more effective and innovative teams, develop more efficient processes, and produce measurable, actionable results. Throughout his career, Kittle has owned and sold his own company, worked for Fortune 100 companies, managed 17 separate government divisions, and helped implement over 65 unique or first-of-its-kind pilot projects. He is a nationally recognized civic innovator and keynote speaker, pioneered the concept of “innovation value,” and trains local governments across the country on building sustainable innovation in government, or Sustainovation™.