We Can’t Neglect Basic Infrastructure Assets

Often when thinking about infrastructure investment images of new bridges, train halls, or massive highway interchanges are envisioned. But an often-overlooked aspect for many are basic infrastructure assets or the kinds of things that keeps the lights on and in a state-of-good-repair.

State-of-good-repair is where a backlog of projects are concentrated for governments across the country. These needed investments are significant and likely exceed over a trillion dollars, but there is no easy way to quantify the cost.

The State of California has taken on the task of estimating its deferred maintenance. In the state’s 2019–2020 budget, the administration identified “a total state infrastructure deferred maintenance need of about $70 billion.” Of this amount, about $50 billion was related to the state’s transportation system.

It’s not surprising that the backlog mostly relates to transportation, since that is where the bulk of most public assets are located. The BEA estimates nearly a third of all state and local government fixed assets are streets and highways. And according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 2017, U.S. underfunding of its highway system resulted in an “$836 billion backlog of highway and bridge capital needs.”

By failing to keep-up with deferred maintenance, projects typically end up costing more to fix with each year of delay.

Amtrak created this diagram for one of their capital plans to outline what some of their basic infrastructure assets are: electric traction systems, signal controls, track, and other basic structures.

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A diagram of basic infrastructure of rail corridors. Source: Amtrak

Without all these components working properly, trains would never reach their destination on time. In September 2013, I had the misfortune of being a daily commuter on the Metro North New Haven Line to New York City. That month an unplanned electrical power outage impacted service for 12-days. While normally a redundant feeder cable would be available for these types of problems, it was out-of-service due to a planned equipment upgrade. Transit agencies and other authorities operate fairly lean, however increased redundancies in the system can prevent these types of problems from occurring.

The New Haven Line’s ridership, at 125,000 weekday and 39 million annual passengers, ranks as the busiest commuter rail line in the United States.

Another basic infrastructure asset often overlooked are water pumps. Subterranean transit systems, like the New York City subway, needs to pump out water on a regular basis and even more so during storms. Former subway chief Andy Byford described it well,

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Pumping water off the subway tracks following a watermain break in Jan. 2020. Source: Gothamist

On a normal day, pump rooms draw 13 million gallons of water out of the system citywide. During storm periods, it can be nearly double that. A watermain break earlier this year resulted in major service delays and pumping nearly 500,000 gallons of water out of the subway system.

Continuous investment in basic infrastructure is needed to normalize and advance a steady-state of good-repair. While we all like new stations, waiting areas, and other “in-your-face” amenities, we cannot overlook the basics.

For more of my thoughts and what I’m currently reading, follow me on Twitter @WhatTimTweets. Tweets and any opinions are my own.

Written by

State and Local Government Finance Professional | Cities, Transit, Infrastructure, Economics, Demographic Change. Opinions are my own.

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