Defying the Deferred Maintenance Dilemma

Cities need to take the long view when it comes to infrastructure modernization.
September 25, 2018
David Kidd
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
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It is much sexier to build a bridge than to pay to maintain it. The same goes for all public infrastructure. Cash-strapped governments claim that they can’t afford the cost of maintenance so, whether they admit it or not, they take a chance on going without.

Deferred maintenance continues to plague many government entities. The Old Spanish Missions in San Antonio -- the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas that is currently operated by the National Parks -- recently reported deferred maintenance projects costing millions. In total, the National Parks in Texas reported a backlog of over $167 million in deferred maintenance for projects in 2017. The figure is close to $12 billion for the National Park Service nationwide.

The tragic bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy, last month that claimed 43 lives is a stark example of the consequences of not only insufficient maintenance but lack of transparency and urgency. Over a decade earlier, the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145. In the investigation that followed, NPR reported, “The interstate highway bridge had been classified as structurally deficient, meaning that it was aging and in need of repair.”

In Massachusetts, the financially plagued state-run public transportation agency, the MBTA, proudly announced its first balanced budget in years at the same time it had to close parts of a major parking facility when the roof collapsed.

Privatization is often touted as a silver bullet to solving deferred maintenance issues. But the bridge in Genoa was privately operated, so privatization is no guarantee. There are numerous private companies vying to take over water and wastewater systems, but the large payout that cities may be tempted to receive may not cover the long-term costs, and the contracts can often come with unattractive terms like increased prices for consumers and lack of local control.

There are some best practices to get out of the deferred maintenance dilemma. Transparency is key. Government needs to be upfront about the costs and consequences of deferred maintenance. There are think tanks, citizen groups and other resources that cities and other government agencies can tap into to calculate and articulate the data about delaying infrastructure spending. Government also needs to take seriously and investigate constituent and user complaints. Being transparent can help garner support for additional spending, trade-offs and tough decisions that need to be made.

As for the tough decisions and trade-offs, sometimes bridges may need to be closed, streetlights shut off and buildings torn down. Data can help determine the risks of continuing to use or limiting the use of infrastructure. The MBTA was not entirely wrong to focus on balanced budgets as a tough trade-off to infrastructure spending. For years, the agency was using debt to pay for operating costs. The state also experienced a downgrade in bond rating in 2017, which can increase borrowing costs and vastly increase the ability to solve infrastructure needs.

Remember that it took a long time to get into the deferred maintenance cycle and it will take a while to get out of it. A long-term approach should involve determining priorities; setting targets; and examining the long-term debt capacity and tolerance for fees, funding and even privatization as stopgaps or solutions. Washington, D.C., was lauded by the rating agency S&P for its long-range capital finance plan. A finance plan can include outside partnerships that can help raise funds or even utilize vacant public buildings for other purposes.

Infrastructure is a shared resource and a much more complex issue to deal with appropriately. Taking it seriously enough to keep it at the forefront with data, transparency, tough policy decisions and long-term planning is key to preventing serious and even tragic incidents. The bill for deferred maintenance is overdue.