Why Use Limited Funds on New Infrastructure while Neglecting Potentially Catastrophic Infrastructure Repair Issues?

Just recently, the Governor of New Jersey canceled a new tunnel project that was projected to cost up to 14 billion dollars on grounds that the state cannot afford it.  This was most likely a very tough decision, and it undoubtedly has adverse effects on a great number of people in the construction industry.   But it illustrates a point that I’ve been contemplating for quite awhile.

Every municipal agency is learning how to do more with less: less staff, less money, etc.  When it comes to infrastructure repair, common excuses are, “we do not have money in the budget”, “we are short on staff”, “no time”, “need training”…the list goes on.

As a result things tend to get neglected until a catastrophic failure; then money seems to “magically appear” to replace it.  A recent example is the explosion of a neglected gas pipeline in San Bruno, California which caused an estimated $41 million in property damage, not to mention tragic injuries and fatalities.  Why has it usually been easier to get money to “replace it” rather than to “maintain or rehab it”?

With a limited budget it is generally more cost effective to repair and maintain than to replace, however most monies coming in are earmarked for new construction or replacing rather than maintaining the years of existing infrastructure construction already in place.  Yes, new construction is more glamorous, makes the community appear more prosperous, and makes the commissioners happy (see what we are doing for you!).  Meanwhile the out of sight things are falling apart.  As long as people can push the handle and it all goes down the drain, who really cares what shape the sewer system is in?  As long as I turn on the tap and water comes out and it’s not brown or red – great.  These systems, whether in sight (bridges, buildings, parks dam levees…) or out of sight (water, sewer, culverts, storm water ….), all need maintenance.   Every municipality has a long list of things they would like to do or that need repairing (the “when we get to it list” that “never gets got to” until there is a failure.

With budget limitations, if you can repair or rehabilitate 8 – 10 structures for the cost of replacing one, aren’t you really ahead?  When you consider the cost to replace, you must factor in “inconvenience to the public”.  How long does the area have to be closed or out of service?  What impact does that have to the local community, businesses, schools, fire and police response times…?

Trenchless technology methods have come a long way in the last decade, making most of these repairs less disruptive and less costly than “rip out and replace” especially over traditional cut and cover methods.

In most cases as a taxpayer, I see more value in having 8 – 10 repaired and maintained structures than one new structure to be added to the “can’t afford to maintain list” down the road.   If we cannot find a way to take care of what we have, what is the point in continuing to add more?  Whoever said “build it and they will come” forgot the second part, “maintain it or they will leave”.   When a city’s infrastructure suffers, so does the community.   All municipalities need to be good stewards of the tax payer’s money.   The way of the future is value, and that takes the shape in – REPAIR AND REHABILITATE.  Not necessarily “rip out and replace”.

Let me be clear – I am not anti new construction, but if we cannot properly maintain decades of projects already built, the problem will only intensify.

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