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  • Writer's pictureMark Reiner, PhD, PE

We Can’t Solve Aging Infrastructure if We Can’t Talk About It

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

When (if) an Infrastructure stimulus bill is passed in 2021, and billions USD are injected into new projects, will the main criteria again be that the projects are just “shovel-ready”? Or, will cities have a visionary plan that reverses the trend of the aging infrastructure crisis and move towards the goal of long-term reliable urban infrastructure? As we don’t have the language or indicators to understand the disruption of aging infrastructure in a city, it’s likely the former.


The Charles Bridge in Prague, Czechoslovakia, is about 625 years old. Yet, it is a centerpiece of tourism and cultural pride, and still serves as a critical pedestrian/bike corridor. Even older is the Pantheon in Rome that is nearly 1900 years old and currently functions as a Catholic church. Age seems to be of little concern if structurally sound. Similarly, the age of infrastructure in the US is rarely used as a sole indicator for determining capital improvement projects. So, how are we going to solve our “aging infrastructure crisis” if we don't have indicators that quantify its negative impact to our cities? There is a need to benchmark the current impacts of aging infrastructure in our cities in order to understand the total cost of infrastructure. As Peter Drucker said – “you can’t manage what you do not measure.”

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was a Federal stimulus package ($800 billion-plus, 2009) for infrastructure where the main criterion for project selection was whether it was "shovel ready" — meaning planning and approvals (e.g. NEPA compliance) were secured and people could be put to work within 90 days. This criterion was changed multiple times, and without any other coordination, the projects were granted in an ad hoc manner. When (if) there is a major infrastructure stimulus in 2020, it is for sure that we still do not have a systematic approach for addressing our urban aging infrastructure crisis. This is due to many confusing factors, including the multiple owners of infrastructure (over 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure is privately owned) and overlapping jurisdictions (public, private, PPP, and special districts). But without a common language and indicators to better quantify the disruptions that aging infrastructure causes our urban economic and social systems, planners cannot make the case that will be required to galvanize the political will necessary to coordinate the various owners and jurisdictions.

A city (or region) requires a visionary roadmap that makes the economic case for the adaptive flexibility necessary to start placing our urban infrastructure in an environment that mitigates against chronic and acute hazards, ensuring long-term reliability, and creating the foundation for a smart city. The first step is to develop the language and indicators to prove the case. This short blog considers four categories.

Is “Aging” a Problem?

Like most communication barriers, errors can be found in the translation of jargon from one entity to another. Although it is common to hear that infrastructure is built to have a service life of 50 to 100 years, then why do we have 130+-year-old cast-iron water mains in our cities? Consider the difference between the term service life (the period for which a component, device, or system is expected to function at its designated capacity without major repairs) and the utility’s term remaining useful life (aka, ‘economic life’ as defined by the estimated time that a depreciable fixed asset can be expected to contribute to utility operations before failure). In other words, the remaining useful life has a value of how many more years of service it has, not how old it is (e.g. a 130-year-old water main that is deemed to be in good condition might be labeled solely by having 12 more years of service). The utility uses remaining useful life in order to extract as much service from every asset as possible – from their point-of-view. That is, utilities typically are indemnified against many damages associated with failure, and do not necessarily have the same definition of “disruption” as the city that it serves does. [1]

Relying on the remaining useful life of assets results in identifying only those projects that are not expected to survive until the next Capital Improvement Planning (CIP) round. And while this makes sense from the utility’s perspective, consider how ignoring the service-life of our systems' assets may have massive impacts to the city. For example, despite the sophisticated asset management of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), there is an average of three water main breaks per day and approximately 90 percent of the 7,600 miles of water mains (6,800 miles) exceed the recommended service-life. What massive disruptions will likely result? And, what key performance indicators (KPIs) should LA be using to better quantify how disruptive the baseline of this one sector [2] is, and will become? Cities need to better understand the looming hazards (e.g. HOWL [1]) related to ignoring the service life of assets and not just accept the remaining useful life values that are hidden to them behind the complex algorithms in utility asset management [3].

Aging Infrastructure as a Hazard (aka Disruption)

It may seem contradictory that aging infrastructure is not considered a hazard – neither by dictionary definition nor by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The dictionary definition of hazard is “an unavoidable danger or risk, even though often foreseeable.” Aging infrastructure is definitely avoidable; therefore, it is accurate to say that it does not meet this definition. And, per FEMA’s guidance for Hazard Mitigation Plans (HMP), a community needs to address natural hazard design events and also is encouraged to address manmade and technological hazards. (‘Manmade’ refers to vulnerabilities of systems to terrorism and ‘technological’ refers to nuclear power plant incidents and U.S. Army chemical stockpiles.) The HMP does not require, or even suggest, that a community consider an overview of aging infrastructure as it is assumed that each sector’s utility is managing the system reliably. [4 and 5]

However, from a city’s perspective, do natural hazards or the chronic decay [3] of our urban infrastructure cause more disruptions? Consider that there are over 850 water main breaks per day in North America. In New York City, for example, the roads are cut open 550 times per day for infrastructure maintenance and repair. And, and despite the utilities’ spray paint markings on our roads and sidewalks that indicate the location of buried assets, NYC still experiences over $300 million in infrastructure damages from those road cuts per year. Cities need to develop the baseline Total Economic Disruption [1] to better evaluate future alternatives, and plan accordingly. The communication failure here is that the true cost of infrastructure is invisible to residents. Without tangible knowledge of the full costs of reliable and resilient infrastructure, the public cannot calculate their willingness to support new rates or bonds required for system performance. [1]

Defining Infrastructure by Location – not by Sector or Ownership

The term “infrastructure” is such a broad term that it can generally represent all of the built environment (hard) and even our institutions and governance (soft). We need more descriptors to better plan for the hazards that could be expected. Within the geographic boundaries of a city, infrastructure should be viewed by how it is integrated into our transit (roads, rail, and bridges) and defined by transition [6] (location). Location is essential for better defining the chronic and acute hazards that lead to “infrastructure disruption”. For example, infrastructure disruption is often associated with the End-User experiencing loss of service during a natural hazard (e.g., power outages after a major storm) [7]. But infrastructure disruption also occurs in the Supply transition (Cape Town’s “Day Zero”) and the Transmission transition (PG&E’s Camp Fire) – each transition has unique sustainability and resilience characteristics. [6]

From a city’s perspective, urban roads are much more than a right-of-way for placing infrastructure. Urban roads provide transit and access to businesses and services that are essential for maintaining the viability of a city’s economic and social engines. Any disruption to urban roads has ripple effects (loss of business, longer commuting, delays…etc.) that should be quantified. Figure 1 shows a cross-section of the typical urban road with the buried infrastructure that distributes the essential basic needs of a city (transportation, water, sewer/storm, communication, energy). So, the Distributive transition is any road where our infrastructure is buried in a soil matrix, covered with asphalt (or concrete), and then we expect the roads to serve as long-term reliable transit corridors for the public. The inaccessibility of the buried infrastructure results in utilities avoiding pulling permits for routine maintenance - the cause of deferred maintenance and decay. [8, 3, 1]

Figure 1: The Urban Distributive Transition [1], aka RABID [8]

Infrastructure Grading for Urban Resilience

The American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) has issued quadrennial reports regarding the status of infrastructure in the United States since 1998 – Infrastructure Report Card (Report Card). The Report Card issues a single letter grade for the entire United States – currently a “D+” – derived by averaging the grades of all 16 categories (sectors [2]) of infrastructure. But this national level methodology of averaging grades across all infrastructure sectors does not account for the unique physical hazards of collocating assets under our urban roads (Distributive transition). Is it meaningful (actionable) for a city to have one grade for all infrastructure, or even per sector? If the potable water sector had sections of a system that were given an “F” under one part of the city, and sections that were given an “A” under another, would the resulting overall grade of “C” be meaningful? How could a city’s resilience reporting benefit from a better understanding of the infrastructure hazards at a block-level?

The ASCE has 8 grading criteria for assigning a letter grade to a sector, then average those grades across all sectors (categories). Two things for cities to consider. One of the eight grading criteria - condition - should consider the term “system” (noun. an assemblage of parts forming a complex or unitary whole). If a single sector was comprised of 90 percent assets that were rated in excellent condition and ten percent that were in failing condition (definition of decimated); do you assign an "A" letter grade for the 90 percent of the system that is in excellent condition, or an "F" for the ten percent that is failing? I would promote basing the grade on the failing components as a system requires all parts to perform reliably. Secondly, averaging grades across sectors to provide a single letter grade does not provide actionable information at the block-level. For example, a freshly paved urban road may receive a letter grade of “A+”, while just below the surface is a large-diameter, 130-year-old cast-iron water main that might receive an “F” grade. Averaging these sectors would result in an overall grade of “C” for this road segment. But, on a paradigm level, the grade for an urban intersection should reflect the threat of the asset [2] that could cause physical disruption (assets that are structural, e.g. a bridge, or under pressure, e.g. a water main). Therefore, the grade assigned to the road segment would be based on the asset that poses the greatest threat to disrupting city life, i.e. the water main. [3]


Rather than saying cities face an “aging infrastructure crisis”, perhaps it should be phrased as an infrastructure “inaccessibility crisis” or “disruption crisis”. Neither are good or catchy, but the idea has been hopefully conveyed. There is daily disruption in our cities that takes the form of closed roads/lanes due to infrastructure maintenance, repair/replacement and the resulting traffic delays, accidents, detours, and loss of business…etc. We have become inured to it as part of daily life in the city and cannot conceive of a city that eliminates/minimizes these disruptions. Cities have failed to quantify the total resulting costs from these disruptions [1, 8].

Will cities use the next infrastructure stimulus funding and influence projects to fit within a plan to resolve the issues that have led to an aging infrastructure crisis to begin with? In order to achieve smart city goals, we need to rethink the how-it’s-always-been-done paradigm. A new urban infrastructure approach will not be championed by a single utility alone. A broader perspective is required to present the overall social and cost benefits of coordinating the placement of all urban infrastructure. Infrastructure planning is mostly advisory - not mandatory. [9] Assembling a baseline of economic and social indicators [1] would provide fodder for the big lift to politically get to mandatory coordination. This will have to start at the local level – initially – which isn’t ideal, but the most realistic. [9]


[1] A series of blogs regarding the Total Economic Disruption of Aging Infrastructure by Reiner, Fisher, and Fang: (Part 1 of 4 here).

[2] ‘sector’ refers to the individual infrastructure systems that delivers an essential service to the city, for example, transportation, energy, water, sewer, solid waste, stormwater, etc. through pipes, cables, vehicles, pavement. An ‘asset’ is a component of an infrastructure sector (e.g. gas main).

[3] Book chapter: Reiner, M, and Cross, J. (2018). Addressing the Infrastructure Decay Rate in US Cities: the case for a Paradigm Shift in Information and Communication, in Gardoni, P. Routledge handbook of sustainable and resilient infrastructure. 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge, pp.791-807.

[4] Reiner, M., & Rouse, D. (2017). Dependency model: reliable infrastructure and the resilient, sustainable, and livable city. Sustainable And Resilient Infrastructure, 3(3), 103-108. doi: 10.1080/23789689.2017.1386041

[5] Reiner, M., & McElvaney, L. (2017). Foundational infrastructure framework for city resilience. Sustainable And Resilient Infrastructure, 2(1), 1-7. doi: 10.1080/23789689.2017.1278994

[7] World Bank Group, 2019. Lifelines : The Resilient Infrastructure Opportunity Lifelines

[8] A series of blogs regarding indicators for creating new urban infrastructure paradigm by Reiner: (Part 1 of 5 here).

[9] Email correspondences with Rocky Piro and Steve Fisher

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