Infrastructure Asset Management 101: Manage Existing Assets First

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Aug 052014


A water main break near the University of California, Los Angeles, Tuesday caused massive street flooding and damage at the university's campus.

Image courtesy of Danny Moloshok / Reuters. Obtained from

Los Angeles, California is just days removed from a massive water line break at the UCLA campus that spewed over 20 million(!) gallons of potable drinking water.  This unfortunate accident comes at a time when the state of California is in the midst of one the most severe and prolonged droughts in recent memory – a drought so bad that the state and some local agencies have formally authorized the issuance of $500+ fines for private residents who are seen “excessively” watering their lawns, drive ways, or even washing their cars.

The 30″ water main that broke at the UCLA campus was old…really old – 93 years old, in fact.  Aside from the obvious costs of losing 20 million gallons of fresh drinking water in the height of a drought, there are also untold other costs related to sinkhole and road way repair, damage to flooded facilities and other assets, and labor costs and loss of countless man hours spent repairing the damage that will continue for weeks and months from now.  Pauley Pavilion, alone, underwent a $136 million renovation that was completed just 2 years ago and it’s historic basketball court may need to be replaced due to flood damage.

Meanwhile, as existing critical public infrastructure assets like water lines crumble here in California, state lawmakers set their sights on ambitious and controversial multi-billion dollar insfrastructure projects such as high speed rail and wind energy production…rather than placing an emphasis on improving and updating what has already been built.  The goals of such new infrastructure projects are well-intended, but they come at a high price in the form of high upfront costs, unintended endangerment to the environment and/or wildlife, and the unseen costs of a dollar spent here is a dollar not spent on existing crumbling infrastructure.

Here’s an analogy – the water lines to your house are old and they often leak and break, leaving you without water to drink, cook, bathe, etc. and costing you countless dollars in lost water.  Rather than spend $1000 to replace or repair your crumbling water lines, you decide to take out a $1 million dollar loan to purchase an airplane and install a state-of-the-art wind turbine energy system.  The airplane will help you get from point A to B faster than ever and you’ll be cutting down on wasted fuel and time spent in traffic.  Similarly, the wind turbine energy system will help you cut down on your fossil-fuel consumption, but it might accidentally butcher an eagle or condor or more that flies into the fan blades.  Meanwhile, you are still paying the price for wasting a boatload of drinking water due to faulty pipes.

What’s the lesson learned in all of this?  Consider spending existing scarce resources on improving vital infrastructure back to a serviceable level – rather than spending on questionable new infrastructure where the cost/benefit of doing so is unclear at best.