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In EU and United States, Aging Infrastructure a Major Problem

Infrastructure isn't something most citizens spend a great deal thinking about. It's easy to take roads, highways, bridges, wires, cabling, satellites, and sewer systems for granted. But as recent events have shown, it’s more of a problem than we realize.

In the EU, United States, and dozens of developed countries around the world, ageing infrastructure is becoming a serious problem.

Genoa Bridge Collapse Raises Alarm Bells

On August 14, 2018, Italians in the city of Genoa – located in the northwestern portion of the country – work up to an intense summer storm. Shortly before noon, the storm became so strong that visibility was greatly reduced. Vehicles crossing the massive Morandi Bridge were slowing, some even stopping, because of the billowing mist. Then, without much warning, a 200-metre section of the bridge collapsed. Along with it, one of the three supporting towers fell. Forty-three were killed, dozens more injured, and 600 people left homeless.

While certainly a tragedy in its own right, the collapse of the Morandi Bridge is disastrous in a larger context, as well. It's just another sign that key infrastructure throughout the EU is deteriorating before our eyes.

According to a survey published by the CNR engineering group, four other major Italian highway overpasses have collapsed in the last two and a half years. All of the collapses were the result of structural weaknesses.

"What are worrisome are the ones built in the 1950s and 1960s, most of which are at the end of their lifespans," civil engineer Antonio Occhiuzzi says.

This isn't strictly a European issue, though. Even the United States, which for many decades had the most robust infrastructure in the world, is dealing with rapid deterioration at the hands of Father Time.

"More than half of America's natural gas transmission pipelines were installed before 1970, government data show; the same holds true for pipelines that carry hazardous liquids such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel," Wharton University explains. "And pipelines are just a fraction of the nation's vast tangle of infrastructure — the roads, cables, wires, conduits, drains, satellites and switches that enable the flow of everything from sewage to Facebook posts."

Italy, the United States, and a handful of other countries made large investments in infrastructure half a century ago, yet seemingly haven't made any significant revisions or contributions since. And now that we're reaching an age where deterioration is to be expected, society is reaping the consequences.

Preserving Today's Infrastructure for Tomorrow

It's not yet clear how to proceed. From a cost perspective, developed nations are wondering how to finance improvements and updates. From a logistical standpoint, it's not always clear the best way to address these projects with the least amount of disruption and inconvenience to the people whom the infrastructure serves. Then there's the question of what approach you use to actually fix the underlying issues.

It's possible that the best approaches could be adopted from the private sector approach to managing aging infrastructure. For example, wastewater plants have been known to use reliability center maintenance (RCM) to improve reliability via cost-effective maintenance techniques.

"RCM delivers a set of reliability-based, proactive tasks, focused on sustaining the desired functionality of systems and equipment. It provides a structured framework for analyzing potential failures and helps determine what should be done to mitigate those failures based on the acceptable level of risk," PinnacleART explains.

Cross-sector innovation is another approach that European nations and the United States can benefit from. Collaboration between public organizations and private companies could potentially create diverse forms of funding and expertise, which would make it easier to achieve support from the general public.

Progressive Solutions Needed

We're at a major tipping point. Within the next decade, significant investments and updates must be made in order to keep decades-old infrastructure safe and usable. Otherwise, we're apt to end up with more deadly collapse like the Morandi Bridge catastrophe.

For the time being, we have the time to brainstorm and test out new ideas. But there will soon come a time when the days of strategizing will have to be replaced by action. We're nearing that time, and the fear is that we aren't prepared to handle the challenges that lie ahead.

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