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Engineers should provide "owner’s manuals" for infrastructure

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">“As engineers, we build projects worth millions of dollars, but when have we ever provided the purchaser with a detailed owner’s manual,” asks Saeed Mirza, past chair of the Technical Committee on the Rehabilitation of Infrastructure for the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and a McGill University professor.
Saeed Mirza
Saeed Mirza

Infrastructure

From coffee makers to cars, Canadian consumers are accustomed to receiving an extensive set of instructions and maintenance schedules with their purchases.

The usual documentation that goes with a completed infrastructure project: nothing.

“As engineers, we build projects worth millions of dollars, but when have we ever provided the purchaser with a detailed owner’s manual,” asks Saeed Mirza, past chair of the Technical Committee on the Rehabilitation of Infrastructure for the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and a McGill University professor. “We already know what kind of deterioration occurs from corrosion, freezing and thawing but these models aren’t being applied to predict the life-cycle of our infrastructure.”

Mirza, who spoke at the fourth annual Future of Canada’s Infrastructure conference in Toronto, notes consumers understand fully who is going to pay for maintaining their purchases. Less valuable items are easily replaced, while more valuable investments—like cars—will receive scheduled maintenance.

Putting off infrastructure maintenance for consideration by future generations is like waiting for your kids to grow up so they can pay for an oil change, he says. In some cases, Canadian infrastructure deficit estimates reflect the cost of deferring maintenance by 20, 50 or 100 years, then paying the bill all at once.

“It’s a normal business practice to consider depreciation,” says Mirza. “But if we examine water supply rates, for example, who pays for that depreciation? Shouldn’t the users pay the depreciation as the water is consumed?

“If deterioration of our infrastructure is allowed to occur without maintenance for 100 years or more, no source of funding will give us enough money to pay for replacing it all at once.”

Mirza notes that bridges designed to last 75 years are now only achieving life spans of 35 to 40 years due to lack of maintenance.

“Normal (annual) maintenance should be budgeted between two and four per cent of facility costs,” he says. “In Canada, the average is zero to two per cent.”

Mirza proposes a National Infrastructure Policy that forces builders and users alike to acknowledge infrastructure as a normal capital expenditure — complete with instruction booklet, projected depreciation costs and life cycle maintenance schedules.

by Peter Kenter

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