Infrastructure is the elephant in the Alaska budget room

Port of Anchorage

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget and the conversations dominating the debate focus on cuts to healthcare and education spending, yet little attention is being paid to a critical component of Alaskans’ daily lives – our roads, bridges, water systems and the Alaska Marine Highway System. As our legislators debate Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed budget, it is crucial they maintain focus on funding for the essential infrastructure that Alaskans depend on every day. When infrastructure fails, it impacts not only our economy, but also the safety and livelihood of all Alaskans. Too many times have we seen lives lost, adverse health impacts and impacts to business from damaged bridges, collapsed water and sewer lines, as well as deteriorating roads.

As our state moves toward achieving a sustainable budget, our policymakers must remember the hidden but very real costs associated with the failure to act on critical investment for our state’s infrastructure. The American Society for Civil Engineers estimates that the average American family loses $9 per day due to poor, unreliable infrastructure. Moreover, often we build infrastructure assets and then give no thought to how to maintain them – the total cost of an asset. In the engineering world, we call this a life-cycle cost analysis.

Our critical infrastructure has suffered from deferred maintenance over the years, resulting in increased funding needs for capital expenditures. Think about the life-cycle cost analysis of doing annual maintenance on your car. Rotating tires, changing oil, replacing belts and refilling the fluid levels will cost you money over the years but could very well extend the life of your car for more than a decade. You may end up replacing the car in half the time or less of what you would have, had you done the actual maintenance. In the current funding regime, we build, reconstruct, modernize and run our infrastructure until the wheels fall off with little to no maintenance. We are essentially buying a new car more often than we should due to deferred maintenance, and this is not sustainable.

In 2017, the ASCE Alaska Section released the first Report Card for Alaska’s Infrastructure, in which the state earned a C-minus. Specifically, marine highways received a “D.” The AMHS serves coastal communities across Alaska. Most of its vessels are 40 years old or older, and the older fleet is nearing its life expectancy. Meanwhile, Gov. Dunleavy has proposed a massive budget cut to the AMHS, as many tourists, residents and remote communities use ferries for transportation purposes, such as getting to health care services and sporting events because of its affordability. Parts of our state are suffering from the effects of thawing permafrost, coastal erosion and sea level rise, where communities are literally sinking and falling into the ocean. Our roads and airports have deferred maintenance due to budget cuts, resulting in the closure of several maintenance stations. In some areas, families do not have access to clean drinking water in their homes and still use “honey buckets.” We also have a major port that is sitting on piles that are in a state of such corrosion, its structural integrity is compromised.

These are just a few examples that should be addressed as a part of this budget discussion. Neglecting necessary repairs will continue to add to the repair cost. Delaying will result in compounding costs over time. I urge policymakers to remember how important our infrastructure is to our economy – and how deferring maintenance and investment causes a lack of access to services, income lost due to delays and damage to our vehicles.

For more information on the Report Card for Alaska’s Infrastructure, go to InfrastructureReportCard.org/Alaska.

David Gamez, P.E., serves as Vice President of the American Society of Civil Engineers – Alaska Section.

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