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Infrastructure Asset Management: Our responsibility for the future

In the summer of 2012, the Honourable Stephen Fletcher, Minister of State for infrastructure, and others toured many parts of our country to hear from Canadians about the need for a renewed federal infrastructure program to replace the expiring Building Canada Plan. The conclusions from these “round table” meetings have yet to be formally published. However, a number of those invited to attend have summarized what they heard, and there is significant agreement among them, although some regional differences do exist.

The opinions of those in attendance, myself included, resoundingly support a new, long-term, effectively managed, needs-based, equitably distributed, federal funding arrangement with the provinces, territories, and municipalities. interestingly, the motivation of those speaking appeared to be both to sustain our current economic condition, as well as to preserve what has been previously built, for future generations. Whether this is due to the impact of bridges or malls collapsing, or public and private sector pressure for improved transportation systems or new stadiums is unclear. However, what is apparent is that our professional and ethical obligations as engineers to preserve what we in Canada have been naturally blessed with, and what has already been built in this great country, are aligned with the interests of Canadians in general. To maintain our competitiveness in Canada, we need to invest in our infrastructure. investment in infrastructure is not an expense, but it is an investment in the future.

Professional Engineers are obligated under the law to work for the protection of society, the environment, and, vicariously, the public purse. This balance is simply stated, yet often difficult to achieve, given the associated financial, political and public influences on development and sustainability. From my perspective, the desire to meet “wants” before “needs”, frequently gets in front of the effective operation and conservation of those assets already in place, or highly critical, but less glamorous infrastructure needs. Often this is with little regard to the criticality of the existing assets and their impact on the preservation of our social order. Yet, if we as a society clearly recognize and embrace the need for effective management of our existing assets (such as forests, rivers, buildings, bridges, or drinking water systems), then we will ultimately create benefits for future generations of Canadians. if we ensure the optimal life of infrastructure investments, the reinvestment in critical infrastructure ahead of the less critical, the preservation of natural wealth, and the equitable redistribution of tax dollars as the foundation for a Long Term Sustainable infrastructure program, it will enable us to meet the needs of most Canadians before the wants of some, and thus enhance our future.

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The frequent call upon Minister Fletcher to tie asset management to future funding approvals is a step in this direction. Some of the key features of an effective and efficient infrastructure plan were articulated by attendees, including the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies, as:

1. Assessing new and existing infrastructure needs considering asset condition, capacity gaps, climate change, and population impacts

2. Prioritizing and sequencing programs and projects for the maximum overall return on investment

3. Clearly defining roles and responsibilities for governments at all levels and the private sector

4. Realistically timing infrastructure projects and programs recognizing fiscal, climatic, and capacity based realities

5. Adopting sound and uniformly understood asset management principles for the preservation of existing and new infrastructure

6. Reassessing needs, priorities, programs, and return on investment on a regular basis

7. Forward planning to enable resource allocation and commitment at all levels.

These features form a fundamental part of an Asset Management Program and should be the basis for our thinking about future developments as engineers and as Canadians. After all, we are all stakeholders, whether as individuals, private companies, or governments, and it is the taxpayers wealth which must be reallocated in the most effective and efficient manner, and in the interest of the greater good.

Our best opportunity to ensure that we as a generation are looked upon as having met our obligations to the future is to recognize the need and take action now to ensure that an efficient and effective infrastructure program is initiated and is based on sound asset management policy.