How Technology Can Fix America’s Crumbling Infrastructure

Michael Robinson Chavez—The Washington Post/Getty ImagesA man waiting aboard a train at the Metro Center station in Washington on Mar. 30, 2016. Metro's top officials warned that the transit system is in such need of repair that they might shut down entire rail lines for as long as six months for maintenance.  

Before it's too late

Our country is literally falling apart.

When you drive over a bridge, do you think twice? When you hop on the subway to work, does it faze you? If it doesn’t now, it will. Soon, that infrastructure that we depend on will be in ruins. You may think this is dramatic, but I am afraid it’s not. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, it will cost our country more than $3.3 trillion over the next 10 years just to maintain our infrastructure as it is now, not to mention any attempts to bring it into the 21st century. This is an urgent issue.

The entire Washington, D.C., subway system is on the brink of ashutdown; railway organizations struggle to understand recent crashes; and bridges across the country are in desperate need of repair, according to an alarming report earlier this year from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. Putting aside the complete chaos that any major failure in our infrastructure would cause to the economy, it’s just flat out unsafe. As citizens of the world’s largest economy, we should expect a safe, modern transportation experience in our country.

In addition to the safety risk, the inefficiencies caused by inadequate infrastructure are estimated to cost every family in the U.S. an average of$3,400 annually. This is due to the myriad ways poor infrastructure affects business productivity and transportation costs that, in turn, cause prices to rise for goods and services.

It is time for the nation to stop putting our collective heads in the sand and invest in a plan to organize, manage and monitor road repairs, bridges, signs, signal systems, repair facilities, inspection programs, required documentation and thousands of other critical details.

Where do we start?

We have to become vigilant of continually changing guidelines and regulations. For example, we should adhere to ISO-55000, an international compliance standard that advises on how to best manage physical assets, which can range from things like subway cars to wheel safety sensors, or even structural properties such as bridges and tunnels. We should also look to the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, a bill, passed by Congress in 2012, that acts as a funding agent for governmental infrastructure and stipulates the necessary level of compliance with “State of Good Repair” guidelines. Regulations such as these are designed to shift the collective mindset away from using tax dollars to chasing down reactive repairs, and rather set us on course to proactively invest in a smarter, more durable infrastructure.

The most efficient way to satisfy all of these requirements, secure funding and ensure a process that proactively detects needed repairs and safely prolongs the life of equipment is by investing in asset management and the technologies that provide the needed visibility and predictive maintenance. Government agencies that are able to administer public infrastructure are finding that new asset-centric software helps them prioritize projects based on risk and criticality, and invest their capital improvement funds in ways that will have the greatest impact. This process requires five steps:

1. Create an inventory of every existing asset.

Every last bolt and screw that functions in our transit system needs to be catalogued and tracked. Technology should be utilized to house all data elements associated with asset infrastructure, including the necessary critical groups of data: unique identification, classification, start of lifecycle date, estimated useful life and replacement cost estimate. Other important information includes condition assessment history and whether the asset is already part of a funded replacement/rehab project.

2. Identify viable projects.

An asset’s condition, based on inspection, age, criticality, and risk, will determine its priority for repair or replacement. TERM Lite is an analysis tool that helps transit agencies assess their repair backlog and determine the investment needed to achieve compliance. The TERM rating scale assigns rankings from one (poor) to five (new) to assess both the probability of failure as well as the consequence of failure, with assets approaching zero as they reach the end of their scheduled useful life.

3. Define prioritization criteria.

An agency needs to determine what would be impacted by a service failure: critical issues such as safety and reliability, or quality issues such as comfort, efficiency, and enjoyment? The American Public Transportation Association employs something called the Capital Asset Inventory and Condition Assessment, which classifies each asset into one of five groups based on its ratio of age to useful life. An asset with 100% of its useful life consumed is assigned a rating of 1, while an asset with 76% to 100% of its useful life consumed is rated a two, and so on. By cataloging and tracking each asset with an assigned value, technicians are able to locate, repair or replace an asset before it fails.

4. Prioritize projects based on their ratings.

Some technologies provide a capital planning request feature that allows you to define and view your compliance backlog, sorted by priority and category, to determine where it makes the most sense to focus.

5. Model investment effects.

By relying heavily on age assessment of assets, the need for funding may be overstated. Instead, modern maintenance practices such as condition-based or performance-based replacement may be appropriate. In a transit scenario, for example, transformers will be replaced based on age regardless of condition due to their extreme criticality, whereas railcars may be able to have their lives extended based on modified maintenance practices.

The American infrastructure is vital to our collective success, and it is time for our government to undertake the same procedural changes that most private sector industries began implementing years ago. The key to revitalizing the American infrastructure is through strategic investments in technologies that create sustainable efficiencies, the same kind that are inherent to modern asset management. Our current system may be failing us, but it is not yet too late.




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