Infrastructure Keeping the Wheels Turning

written by Business View Magazine October 20, 2014

Infrastructure success requires both day-to-day and long-term focus

Behind the scenes, smart people are gathering around tables, on job sites or via virtual technology to plan what the infrastructure surrounding us is going to look like in the next five, 10 or 25 years.

While most of us don’t ponder the changes until we’re stuck in traffic amid road construction or pondering residential choices based on the amenities of a given municipality, the work being done is hugely important, distinctly challenging and typically uncelebrated – though the changes made today will positively impact the way residents live in the next generation and the ones that follow it.

It’s trying work, says George Elliott, commissioner of transportation and public works in Cambridge, Ontario, but it’s an endeavor he believes all cities should be intently focused on.

“There is hope,” he said. “Cities have extremely long lives. They’re going to be here for hundreds of years. There is hope that you can establish a city system of infrastructure that is sustainable and can be in place for the long term.”

In his area’s case, an ambitious team of planners have been able in a handful of years to address a gradually decaying water and sewer infrastructure and set wheels in motion to get Cambridge back to level ground.

“It took us probably 70 years to get into this jackpot of a problem, and we’ve been able to get it turned around in a forecasted 20 years,” he said. “It may take 20 to 25 years to turn your city around, but there is the hope you can do it. It can be done.”

Many in Elliott’s line of work face a perpetual challenge of an overflowing to-do list alongside a forever tightening budget. Some cities, though, have managed to do enough planning in advance to get themselves ahead of the infrastructure curve. And in still others, the blueprint laid out has been outstanding in some elements, and less so in others.

In Walla Walla, Wash., for example, public works director Ki Bealey is ahead of the curve on drinking water treatment and wastewater processing, but behind the 8-ball on water lines and roads.

“The infrastructure on the front end and the back is really quite impressive,” he said. “It’s in between that it’s pretty darn rotten. A lot of failing water lines and failing sewer lines and failing streets.”

To handle the challenges, the city implemented an initiative that’ll ramp up water and sewer rates to help tackle the most immediate issues. Those funds, which will ultimately yield $4 million to $4.5 million per year, are the spur for much of the existing renewal work being done within the network of streets, water and sewers.

Meanwhile, Bealey and his staff are creating a matrix – factoring road condition, daily traffic rates and other infrastructure elements – to prioritize a top 25 list of projects to handle. The matrix and the monetary benefit from the rate hikes should combine in 2016 to allow the city to begin handling issues on a proactive, rather than reactive, basis.

“We’re really trying to get ourselves prepared for that,” Bealey said. “Thus far, we have just kind of been doing the best we can to prioritize those projects,” Bealey said. “Once we have (the matrix and the full funding), we’ll really be able to prioritize the projects in a very quantifiable approach.”

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