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August 30, 2012

Biggest challenge? Maintaining what’s already built

  • An out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality cripples infrastructure and burdens us with big and often avoidable costs.
    Special to the Journal


    Infrastructure: the curiously ungainly vogue word of the day. But why is all the talk dominated by big new projects, real or imagined?

    How about the basic question of taking care of and using better what we have: water, sewer and drainage systems; sidewalks, streets and highways; tunnels, bridges and bus systems; schools, hospitals, libraries and parks. That’s the infrastructure on which our prosperity rests, much more so than on the big new projects we may or may not ever live to see.

    The good order and efficient use of what we have already built or inherited from our forbears is our biggest infrastructure challenge.

    Recently I worked on a national project to lift state transportation departments’ attention to achieving higher reliability for travelers’ use of highways. Where that comes as a new mind-set, part of the explanation may be an ingrained instinct of public officials: their most rewarding infrastructure day is the big new project ribbon cutting. But for citizens, their reward is measured by the day-in, day-out reliability and utility of a highway. Or a sewer plant. Or a runway. Or a transit fleet.

    Politicians’ “build it and forget it” mentality ignores that day-after-day and year-after-year is when citizens get back, or don’t get back, value from infrastructure.

    Keep it in good order

    The first marker of good infrastructure management is long-term maintenance, renewal and rehabilitation of whatever has already been built or bought. The analogy to taking care of your house is familiar and apt: Put off re-shingling the roof if it should be done, and the expensive day of reckoning will come! Ignore the first sign of a leak in an old upstairs water pipe, and what a miserable mess will eventually be visited upon you!

    The same is true with taking care of roads. Let streets rut, crack and crumble, and annoying potholes are the least of the problem. When pavements split and open up the road base — a far too familiar sight — the cost in dollars and disruption of putting things right soars from a routine asphalt overlay to complete roadbed reconstruction.

    At least people can see the roads they drive on and the sidewalks they walk on, and can figure out the score for themselves. Often, however, good order is not so available to the naked eye. Are steel bridges being periodically re-painted? They corrode if they’re not. Are drinking water lines routinely cleaned? They poorly preserve drinking water quality if they are not. Are sewage pump station gates and pumps regularly maintained? Neither Puget Sound water quality nor ratepayers’ investments are protected if they are not.

    An out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality cripples infrastructure and burdens us with big and often avoidable costs. Those costs can dwarf most of the waste, fraud and abuse for which we more eagerly and diligently scrutinize government.

    Operate for efficiency

    The second mark is whether infrastructure is operated for efficiency. Take highways again. Common knowledge traffic engineers and drivers share is that synchronized signals speed traffic flows. It costs a bit of money to set up the computer systems to do that, and to hire the technicians to tune the lights to traffic and adjust them as traffic changes. The value of drivers’ savings from less wasted time generally is seven to 14 times the cost of the work.

    Yet year after year, opportunities are bypassed because the modest levels of spending can’t crack into the big project budgets. This is not good infrastructure policy. The list is endless.

    A transit system like King County Metro must meet the challenge of restructuring obsolete routes to align service where it will best be used. Big public payoffs are there.

    Paying attention is at least as vital to the public’s infrastructure interest as how quickly an expensive tunnel-boring machine is digging an expensive new Sound Transit light-rail tunnel.

    Then there is this on highways: national data shows that half or more of delays from highway congestion are due not to inadequate size of highways, but to sporadic conditions such as a collision, sudden rain squall, sports event, a sofa falling off a pickup truck, even a car out of gas on the shoulder. Drivers slow down, bunch up, and are dragged inexorably into the stubborn friction of bumper-to-bumper frustration.

    Without the trigger, the same volume of traffic would be smoothly flowing at efficient speeds. Effective and system-wide incident management to avoid, minimize or resolve those triggers with managers’ white-knuckle urgency can hugely lower the aggravation (and cost) of traffic congestion.

    The information revolution

    On good infrastructure operations, the Internet and other tools of modern communication are quickly emerging as our ally, with enormous power as we better learn to use them. They can transform the efficiency with which infrastructure functions.

    One key reason is that they bring to the customer — not just an agency bureaucracy — a wealth of critical information on operations status. It’s not just truck and car drivers, for example, who now have traffic-flow maps on their dashboards. At any bus stop today, it seems as if everyone younger than me is checking OneBusAway on a smartphone to improve predictability and reliability for their trips.

    Once the bus arrives, information technology in the customers’ hands helps it rejoin traffic dramatically faster today than 10 years ago because regular riders pay by tapping their Orca cards rather than fumbling for change for the farebox with agonizing slowness for the driver and everyone else on the bus.

    The lesson is that when customers can demand and use today’s information technology, they improve the reliability of their own trips — the whole purpose of the enterprise. Examples abound. For example, Good To Go technology enables electronic variable tolling to help shave and spread a fraction of peak traffic into periods when roads have plenty of room.

    The managers use better tools, too. For sewer system wet weather flow operators or highway snow and ice crews, today’s information tools have supplanted yesterday’s by guess and by golly to get better results.

    The power of consumer technology to improve infrastructure operations is still in its infancy. Today’s adaptive cruise control and collision warning systems available on new cars — from BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Ford and others, and soon Chevrolet — are already reducing rear-end collisions that can cripple highway traffic reliability.

    What we can buy today — warning drivers of hazards and even triggering emergency braking to avoid collisions — are first steps along a quickening path. In short years, vehicles will be communicating with each other, and eventually with the road itself. We have hardly begun to make plans for interactive infrastructure.

    We are only just beginning to understand what this means for infrastructure itself. A recent study from the University of California suggests that when just half the vehicle fleet is equipped with cooperative adaptive cruise control, the actual capacity of a freeway lane will effectively gain 20 percent. This gives new meaning to the phrase infrastructure “public-private partnership,” for that gain will largely be paid for not by new taxes (the road is already there) but by the same kind of private consumer spending to satisfy the appetite for technology that made rotary telephones an antique store novelty.

    Motorists will in short years would no sooner leave the new car showroom, the rent-a-car lot or the Zipcar parking space without the new adaptive cruise control technology than they would leave the house without their iPhone.

    A new world waits. Now we must see whether the infrastructure conversation, grounded in that dowdy i-word, can embrace its arrival.

    Doug MacDonald is a Seattle native with infrastructure experience as chief legal counsel of Boston’s Logan International Airport in the 1970s, executive director of Greater Boston’s water and sewer system in the 1990s, and secretary of transportation in Washington state from 2001 to 2007.

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