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How can the United States mitigate damage related to infrastructure while planning for the future?

Discussion Leader: 
HDIAC Staff
Posted Date: 02/08/2016

As critical infrastructure in the United States ages, the country needs to be prepared to fix or replace the existing systems. In many places, for example, water is run through more than 100 year old lead pipes. And, more than 100,000 miles of U.S. oil and gas pipelines were built during or prior to the 1930s. Aging and weak infrastructure can be leak-prone, costly and even hazardous to human health. But, replacing the infrastructure comes with a significant price tag. 

Stacks old corroded, cast iron pipe that has been in the ground for about 30 years. These pipes will be used to build the test bed. (Image Courtesy: EPA)

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Comments

Infrastructure is expensive. Updating systems is expensive. However, damages caused by disasters or failure due to worn parts can be tremendously more expensive than a simple replacement or upgrade. In addition to the loss of service, infrastructure providers then have to worry about their reputation and brand image.

In 2002, the Bay Area Economic Forum developed a report called "Hetch Hetchy Water and the Bay Area Economy." This document outlines the cost / benefit of upgrading the water system into current seismic standards. It compared the cost of updating the Hetch Hetchy water system and the impact to the economy if the system was lost or damaged. In summary, the report states a San Andreas Fault rupture would create an estimated $28.7 Billion in losses. A Hayward Fault rupture would create an estimated $17.2 Billion in economic losses (2002 dollars). Meanwhile, the cost to upgrade the water infrastructure was $2.9 Billion (regional) and $700 Million within the City/County of San Francisco. While $3.6 billion dollars in water infrastructure is a large price, it withers under the potential $28.7 billion in losses. Lastly, when upgrading the systems, the projects can be phased deliberately, minimizing impacts to both the customer and the company. However, when the infrastructure fails or is damaged during a disaster, the company and customers are faced with "unplanned, mandatory redevelopment" of all impacted systems.

Local jurisdictions and small providers simply do not have the financial capital for massive system upgrades. However, strict cost and benefit analysis should be conducted before final decisions are made. One guide to assist local communities is the NIST Special Publication 1197, "Community Resilience Economic Decision Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems." Other guides can assist decisions makers through this process.

Finally, local jurisdictions and infrastructure providers should seek assistance with environmental impact surveys. Reviewing previous disasters, the environmental survey added anywhere from 3-5 years to repair/replace a system. Some jurisdictions struggle to maneuver through this complicated process. This in turn becomes an added cost and impacts the momentum the initiative may have had. In some situations, most often following a disaster, a governor or governing body may waive the state environmental studies to speed repair and recovery. This option has cleared the way for many improvement projects and may assist providers when bringing systems into current standards.

In summary, in depth cost benefit analysis should be conducted to help decision makers and the public understand the weight of the infrastructure decisions. In many cases, the heft price tag is far smaller than the alternative. Moreover, environmental impact surveys can be lengthy and complicated. Local jurisdictions should consider obtaining assistance for permitting and surveys while determining the appetite to temporarily waive the environmental requirements. All decisions will face public scrutiny, especially following a failure or disaster. Public relations should be included in decision making in order to maintain brand image and reputation.

Much of the problem seems to stem from a "if it isn't broke, don't fix it mentality". As MMatthews said, such upgrades are costly and no one wants to foot the bill if the situation is not urgent. Instead of replacing age infrastructure, patches and temporary fixes are used without addressing the underlying problem. This might work for the short term, but costs more overall in time and repairs. (Eg, patching the same aged line multiple times versus replacing it.)

Waiting until something does fail costs far more because of damages caused by the failure in addition to the infrastructure repair/replacement. The cheapest option is to monitor and replace aged infrastructure before it breaks.

Infrastructure is essential for the smooth operations of our daily lives here in the United States. As infrastructure ages, it is important to remember that preemptive repairs and upkeep will prevent disasters and dangerous situations for citizens. It is often difficult to justify money spent on maintenance and repair when nothing is “broken” and there are other pressing matters. I think the best option is to monitor infrastructure and replace before it fails and causes a state of emergency.

Post from HDIAC Social Networks

In an open society the United States cannot materially mitigate damage related to infrastructure unless any of the following conditions can be satisfied:

  • Design of infrastructure architecture and components based on a systematic assessment of failure and failure modes. this is not a risk-based assessment but a systems assessment tantamount to that developed by Dr. Leveson at MIT.
  • Elimination of massive infrastructure wherever possible to reduce big target vulnerabilities to natural and man-made causes.
  • Recognition that cost due to poor systems analysis and unrealistic or unsubstantiated occurrence of incidents causing damage is routinely underestimated based on expediency rather than objective measures and analysis.
  • Decompose engineered solutions to complex infrastructures to discern where and how that complexity can be reduced.

There does exist peer reviewed literature wherein the adage of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" is shown to be fallacious, more often than not.