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Why cities need to get smart about maintenance

New methods of financing can open up much needed investment in infrastructure.


In industrial facilities, the importance of preventive maintenance is well-understood. Sure, you could save a few bucks by skipping scheduled part inspections and replacements — but those parts would break sooner as a result, putting an expensive dent in your factory’s output. Instead of sparing the oil can, plant managers know it’s better to invest upfront, and keep their machinery in prime condition.

Unfortunately, America’s municipal leaders have sometimes lagged behind. For decades, cities have neglected routine maintenance in a bid to conserve cash. Inevitably, public services and infrastructure have suffered as a result.


Now, with Covid-19 blowing a hole in municipal budgets, we’ve reached a breaking point. With city, state, and federal governments short on cash, it’s no longer possible for cities to keep deferring routine maintenance and relying on emergency cash injections to fix breakages. Our cities urgently need a smarter approach — one that can keep water, lights, trains, and other critical infrastructure running smoothly, without increasing the cost to taxpayers.


A big problem


New York City’s MTA is the poster-child for underinvestment in maintenance: a 2017 report found maintenance budgets had stagnated for 25 years, even as ridership doubled. The upshot: plummeting performance, with over 30 per cent of trains arriving late. In response, planners scheduled $54 billion of new investments to upgrade everything from signal boxes to escalators — but post-Covid, that plan has been shelved. Instead, the MTA has reverted to a “Doomsday budget” that will see services slashed by 40 per cent and further erode maintenance programs.

For decades, cities have neglected routine maintenance in a bid to conserve cash

Similar stories are playing out across North America. In Florida, deferred maintenance saw St Petersburg spill nearly a billion gallons of sewage in 2015 and 2016, and Fort Lauderdale spill 200 million gallons in 2019 alone. After years of neglect, Berkeley now needs $328 million to fix its pot-holed streets. And in Utah, the 11,000 residents of Heber City are trying to find $82 million for sewer and water repairs that have been overlooked for 30 years. No matter where you look, municipalities are wrestling with the legacy of years of neglect.


The solution to such problems is obvious: more money. Chronic underinvestment can only be remedied with more consistent funding; as long as cities keep skimping on basic repairs, we’ll continue to see pipes bursting, buses and trains running late, and the built environment crumbling around us.


But of course, money is in short supply these days. With Covid shutdowns eating into tax revenues, Los Angeles now faces a $600 million budget shortfall, while Chicago will soon be $1.2 billion in the red. There simply isn’t enough money available to make the necessary fixes — so what’s really needed is a way to make better use of the limited maintenance funding that is available.


Going digital


Fortunately, a new generation of digital tools, many borrowed directly from industrial settings, have the potential to make municipal maintenance far more cost-effective. Simple smartphone apps, for instance, can help maintenance crews stay connected, track work orders, and log completed jobs. That means work gets done more quickly, efficiently, and safely, and helps eliminate errors that would otherwise increase maintenance costs.


With digital tools at their fingertips, work crews can easily double-check they are digging up the right bit of road, and aren’t about to break a pipe or dislodge a power line. They can easily access digitised manuals for their tools, or check city inventories for parts and equipment they need. And they can check off tasks as they’re completed, ensuring that work gets done on time and keeping tabs on tasks that still need attention.

Simple smartphone apps can help maintenance crews stay connected, track work orders, and log completed jobs

More sophisticated digital tools can also track infrastructure and assets, enabling cities to monitor the health of vital assets. That’s a game changer for cities like Ottawa, where officials recently admitted that the city’s $488 million maintenance backlog was only the tip of the iceberg, because nobody had bothered tracking deferred maintenance over the years.


By tracking assets and logging scheduled work, digital platforms make such oversights a thing of the past. Workers can track work that’s done — or not done — and sensors built into walls, bridges, or tunnels can provide early warning if cracks or other structural problems develop. That helps city planners ensure they know exactly what needs doing, and make smarter, more data-driven decisions about how to allocate resources.


A smarter solution


Digital tools can deliver both cost savings and improved performance. In Spain, for instance, train operators use predictive maintenance tools, fed with data transmitted by individual railcars, to spot anomalous performance and allow glitches to be remedied before they cause disruption. Because of that, the high-speed connection between Barcelona and Madrid operates at 99.98 per cent reliability — performance numbers any mass-transit provider would be proud to match.


Better performance and more efficient maintenance has a big impact on city budgets. In fact, McKinsey estimates that cities could save up to $1.7 trillion per year by using smarter tools in areas such as transportation, health and safety, and maintenance. Better still, cities don’t need to fork over large sums to harvest those savings. Connectivity tools can be implemented on a subscription model, reducing up-front costs and making cost-reducing maintenance upgrades essentially self-funding.


Cities aren’t averse to finding ways to use new technologies to reduce maintenance bills. New York, for instance, recently slashed its auto fleet maintenance bills by switching to electric vehicles, which require less tinkering than gas-powered trucks. Now it’s time for city planners to start adding digital software into the mix. By being more mindful about maintenance, and using new technologies to level up operating procedures, it’s finally possible for cities to fix their crumbling infrastructure without breaking the bank.

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