Rhetorical question: Why is there always money to build new infrastructure, but never enough to maintain it? Obvious answer: Because it's human nature to avoid dealing with a problem until it's a crisis.
On Aug. 1, we learned a painful lesson in how this tendency affects infrastructure. Until 13 people were killed in the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the average citizen didn't think twice about roads or bridges except to complain about the occasional pothole or decry proposed fuel tax increases. I'm sure the millions of commuters who traveled that section of interstate each day didn't care how the skilled managers at the Minnesota DOT were nursing along a 40-year-old bridge.
Now the department is receiving $250 million of Federal Highway Administration emergency relief funds to help rebuild the bridge, expanding it from four to six lanes.
If this is how we're going to fund operations and maintenance, we're in trouble. It's a short-sighted, unnecessarily expensive solution that reinforces reactionary rather than proactive measures.
You may remember (not very fondly) working with your finance director to place a monetary value on your department's infrastructure assets as required by Government Accounting Standards Board Statement 34 (GASB 34). That was an important first step in quantifying infrastructure investment. Unfortunately, research shows too many communities failed to also account for the cost of maintaining that asset. (A recent reader survey shows that only one-third of respondents' communities use the modified approach, rather than standard depreciation, to value infrastructure assets.)
This failure was understandable. Determining the historical cost of assets installed after 1980 (the baseline required by GASB 34), was time-consuming enough, much less calculating the construction costs of older assets—which of course now have the greatest need of resource allocation for maintenance.
The latter option wasn't easy for either public works or accounting departments, but it was worth it. (And it can still be done: Deflate current replacement costs by comparing Consumer Price Index changes from the year the asset was placed in service to the present date.) Those who have done so say their communities have maintained their bond ratings, ensuring a better chance of raising funds for improvements, and are finding it easier to push elected officials to prioritize infrastructure decisions.
That's the real opportunity presented by GASB 34: the opportunity to calculate lifecycle instead of construction costs. Although an accounting rule seems remote from your day-to-day activities, it can make what you do—and what your successor is able to do—much more effective. But you'll have to take the lead.
Don't let your elected officials off the hook on this one. At some point, an asset just isn't worth maintaining. We can pay now or later, but either way we all have to pay. It's our job to make sure the proper investment is made.
Editor in Chief