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Lifting a Community, a Holistic Approach

Lifting a Community, a Holistic Approach

Selective to blue plastic pipe background. PVC pipes stacked in warehouse of construction site. PVC water pipes used for construction.

By David Totman

Congress and the Administration should be commended for the Senate-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—a $1.2 trillion dollar proposal to fund transportation, energy, water and wastewater infrastructure, and many other critical capital projects and community initiatives. 

Many times, the merit of legislation is measured by the individual programs and the level of funding for each unique effort. However, if we take a step back and evaluate the entirety of the IIJA as one policy initiative, a story of greater impact comes into focus—if we take a new approach to execution.

While a path to passage into law remains a bit murky, policymakers and the public should begin to consider how best to implement the funding for this program because, ultimately, what we have before us may be one of the largest community-oriented construction and public health projects of our time. 

Managing assets for reliable services

My education, my career, and my experience as a public servant at one of the largest municipally owned, four-service utilities in the United States always placed “the public welfare above all other considerations,” as stated in the engineers’ credo; this was our most sacred promise to the public for whom we served.

As former asset manager and steward of a nearly $1 billion annual operating plan, my team supported the entire lifecycle of almost all the services provided to our end users—our customers. This included everything from infrastructure planning through construction to operations and maintenance of electric, gas, water, and wastewater infrastructure, and more including our own telecommunications. 

Our single goal was to provide reliable services to all communities as efficiently and equitably as possible regardless of status—economic and social. But beyond our service area, equitable access was often a big question mark. Older, disadvantaged communities were often left behind—facing illness due to lead water pipes, and now little to no internet access due to a lack of broadband, or a lack of transportation to reliably access medical appointments, school, or jobs. And, to be fair, these are most often challenging in communities of color and poverty and unless we change the status quo will continue to rein.

The Senate-passed infrastructure plan proposes to tackle each of these challenges more traditionally. Water and wastewater infrastructure investments, transportation, broadband? Generally different programs and pots of funding. But there could be a better way—one by which we serve the communities most in need and break down multiple barriers to better health and economic opportunities at one time.

A holistic approach: ‘rip the road up once’

The most logical and efficient approach—and the one with the likelihood of greatest impact—is to use a holistic Right of Way (ROW) methodology. This approach would allocate funding in a prioritized, highest risk community program acknowledging a condition and risk assessment of all utilities within a given neighborhood addressing multiple stakeholders, not just water interests, or just telecom interests, or other one-off utility improvements. 

For example, while replacing lead water service lines feeding water to residents, the opportunity should be leveraged for complete ROW infrastructure improvements. In this scenario, communities identified as those with the greatest needs would propose full ROW infrastructure improvement plans including water and wastewater, broadband, energy, transportation improvements, etc.—and other capital programs covered by the IIJA passed by the Senate. So, in essence, bring the community together, plan and collaborate as one, and create the greatest impact at the best price with the least disruption.

An analysis including technical and financial reasons may waive individual utility stakeholders from leveraging this opportunity at the time, yet due diligence will be achieved in providing modern public infrastructure to protect public health as is the civil engineering credo.

Technology’s role in reinventing communities

Taking a new approach won’t be easy, and executing in collaboration with varying interests often at odds with one another is certainly a hill to climb. However, if we hope to improve our nation’s competitiveness and lift communities from poverty, new ways of incentivizing change must be considered.

One of the greatest challenges for any utility is understanding what assets they have, where they are located, and in what condition they are in. Here lies an important underlying educational opportunity about asset management. Why do utilities not have accurate service line records? There are many factors, including availability of up-to-date records and maps, which would have largely been paper. However, it can be far more complicated than just proper records from the public ROW. 

Consider identifying the neighborhoods with lead service lines. There are water utilities that have service line databases with material type defined, but few have accurate records and often the material type is unknown. It goes without saying that if lead material is known, then it is a simple query. Even with unknown material type, the safest approach would be to assume lead, understanding that the problem would be overestimated. Areas of unknown material could have a quick field investigation using direct inspection or remotely sensed diagnostics. Intelligent desktop analysis using GIS-based demographics and inferred vintage records could target 1930s to 1950s neighborhoods when lead pipe was a plumber’s preferred material. 

In this example, poisonous lead pipes are the rallying cry but the outcome is lifting the entire community, by providing them with access to modern telecommunications and broadband, more reliable electricity, and perhaps improved transportation. With these, individuals can apply for jobs, find doctors, study for school, and have a reliable way to get to them.

This can be the same approach for other utilities. Identify and map the types of materials and the locations of the service lines. Once existing services are identified, all stakeholders within a community may begin planning—embracing geographic information systems (GIS) and building information modeling (BIM) solutions which are suitable for providing a highly efficient, holistic neighborhood ROW construction project. The Nth dimensionality of BIM would be flexible enough to handle the complex logistics of replacing dozens of utility service lines along any given street and used to plan, design, and construct a project with other features—electrical, water and wastewater, bus or light rail, etc.—in one shot. With the data in one place, a single, coordinated plan begins to emerge which then creates a digital twin for future operations and maintenance. 

Resiliency and social impact

The past 24 months have taught us many things about who we are as individuals and how we come together in our communities. But for some, the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis are but exclamation points on generations of inequitable access to healthcare, education, jobs, and economic opportunities.

The Biden Administration and Congress have before them the vehicle to create more healthful and resilient communities—to begin lifting communities of greatest need from generational poverty by doing many of the improvements needed at once.

And by taking a better approach to what we build by improving how we build, connecting design and construction, technology-based asset management and maintenance, communities will be stronger and better prepared to meet the challenges of the future.

David Totman is the VP of Asset Management for Innovyze, an Autodesk company. He has been in the water industry for nearly 40 years. He is a member of both AWWA and ASCE. As an officer in the ASCE he represents them on the US TAG to ISO 55000. Learn more about asset management and the future of sustainability in water infrastructure at Autodesk University.