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Despite the funding, infrastructure failures persist

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(The Center Square) — The recent series of water main breaks in Atlanta garnered national headlines, particularly after reports emerged that some of the failed pipes were at least 100 years old.

Although the federal government continues to allocate billions in tax dollars for infrastructure improvements, even as the country is $35 trillion in debt, cities continue to have infrastructure failures, such as Atlanta’s water main breaks that brought the city to a crawl for days.

“Water is probably more important than anything to humans,” Nick Klein, vice president of sales and marketing at OEC Group – Midwest Region, told The Center Square. “So I would think with the old pipes — and who knows what’s inside that metal — [that] would be more important than anything else. But it’s not.

“…A lot of these political figures, they want to leave their legacy as opposed to fix something boring like infrastructure,” Klein added. “But it’s not boring, and it’s very expensive.”

Experts who spoke to The Center Square stressed the need to use technology to help drive maintenance.

“Infrastructure failures, such as the recent water main breaks in Atlanta, underscore the critical need for a shift in how we approach maintenance and investment in our public infrastructure,” Balaji Sreenivasan, founder and CEO of Aurigo Software, told The Center Square via email. “Despite significant allocations of funds, the reality is that much of our infrastructure is aging and in need of more than just periodic repairs — it requires proactive, technology-driven maintenance strategies.”

Sreenivasan said one of the primary reasons for these recurring failures is the lack of deployment of advanced technology to predict and prevent issues before they become critical.

“Predictive maintenance, a forward-thinking approach that leverages AI, machine learning, and advanced analytics, allows us to anticipate maintenance needs and address potential failures before they occur,” Sreenivasan said. “For example, in cities like Atlanta, the implementation of intelligent sensors has already demonstrated substantial benefits, such as a significant reduction in labor costs and unplanned maintenance.

“However, it’s not just about predicting maintenance needs. Effective infrastructure management also involves comprehensive planning and the strategic selection of projects to maximize public benefit,” Sreenivasan added. “By utilizing advanced tools and technologies, we can ensure that we are making the most informed decisions about where to invest our resources, thereby extending the life of our infrastructure and avoiding the costly consequences of deferred maintenance. So, while funding is absolutely a critical component, the key to preventing infrastructure failures really lies in how we plan to maintain these assets.”

Jennifer Perkins, senior government industry specialist at Brightly Software, a Siemens company, said one fix would be requirements around inventory and long-term planning for infrastructure managers. The Environmental Protection Agency has implemented a required facilities condition report for the water distribution pipes in each jurisdiction specifically to find out if they contained lead or copper, Perkins said.

“Ostensibly, this would help identify where upgrades and replacements need to be made to ensure safe drinking water and prevent another Flint, Michigan-type disaster,” Perkins said via email.

“In reality, it has given each water authority a complete inventory of the materials and condition of the water distribution system,” Perkins added. “Now, it will be up to the utilities to keep that information current and use it for proper fiscal planning. Requiring this for other asset classes would help identify immediate problems and help authorities truly understand their deferred maintenance requirement and create a fiscally responsible plan to address it.”

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