Dramatic images of crumbling roadways, derailed trains and collapsed bridges can be counted on to make the evening news. But the public-sector financial bodies, planning organizations and engineers entrusted with the maintenance and repair of our infrastructure aren't particularly newsworthy -- until something really bad happens. Ensuring that infrastructure gets the attention it needs before those bad things happen is a significant challenge for government.
Given that need to get the public and policy-makers to focus on the state of the crucial systems that underlie our regions, the recently released "2015 State of the Region: Infrastructure Report" by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) is remarkable for both its purpose and scope.
"We wanted to get beyond a simple letter grade for the condition of our infrastructure," explained Chuck Bean, executive director of COG, which addresses regional issues in Washington, D.C., and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. "We created an inventory to understand how the infrastructure got there, who owns it and what we can do about it."
COG's staff recommended that the study focus on five of the region's most critical sectors: transportation, water, energy, local-government buildings and public-safety communications. These were selected because they're lifeline infrastructure systems that are regional in scope and significantly affected by government regulation.
A quick review of the inventory points out the magnitude of the challenges that await policy-makers: 1,500 Metro buses, 91 Metro rail stations, 117 miles of track, 1,363 miles of highway, 18 major wastewater plants, seven electric and three natural gas retailers, 13 drinking-water suppliers and 27 water distributors, and three major airports.
That's a lot to deal with, including both maintenance of existing infrastructure and updates and expansions to deal with future growth, and the report estimates a regional funding gap of $58 billion over the next 15 years. The report calls attention to the importance of bringing infrastructure needs to the forefront of discussion among both public and private-sector providers.
With that in mind, the report recommends the creation of a regional "infrastructure exchange" group that would study and prioritize projects and ways of funding them. It also calls for a sustained public-education campaign to raise awareness of the region's infrastructure needs as well as a series of workshops bringing together experts to "brainstorm out-of-the-box funding mechanisms" to pay for them.
Recent Governing Institute research highlights the importance of these recommendations. When members of the Institute's Exchange community were surveyed on "the biggest challenges your region faces in getting from where it is to where you would like it to be," 54 percent responded with "funding" followed by "lack of leadership or vision" (18 percent), "community resistance to change" (12 percent) and "regional governance issues" (11 percent). When asked if they thought citizens "have a good understanding of what it really costs to build and maintain infrastructure," a remarkable 88 percent replied "no."
While COG officials acknowledge that its report is not the first regional infrastructure analysis, they do claim it to be the most in-depth inventory of these critical sectors. As such, the COG report serves as a template for other regions. Leaders of the hundreds of other regional government councils across the country would do well to review and share COG's data, findings and recommendations to generate interest in creating their own "state of the region" infrastructure reports.
But the real work in the metropolitan Washington region is just beginning. "Now, our challenge is to put this valuable information to good use as each of our jurisdictions, authorities and other infrastructure owners and regulators set budgets and consider projects," wrote Phil Mendelson, chairman of the D.C. city council and former chair of COG.
How might we measure their progress? If the region's leaders are successful in using this assessment, prioritizing their projects and finding innovative funding, it's a lot less likely that images of crumbling local infrastructure will be dominating the evening news around the nation's capital.