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The Case for Asset Management in Public Works

Tacoma's Murray Morgan Bridge, courtesy of Scott Hingst.

This is a guest post from Toby Rickman, 2014 APWA-WA President, and Deputy Director of Public Works for Pierce County.  This post is adapted from an article in APWA-WA's latest issue of PUBLICworks Magazine.

We all know that advanced societies are built on the foundation of modern infrastructure. Our communities rely on infrastructure more than ever to maintain their quality of life, allow us to get around, and support economic development and job creation. We inherited a legacy of excellent infrastructure from previous generations who were willing to invest in their community.

But infrastructure in Washington State continues to deteriorate as communities vote down transportation packages and other infrastructure proposals. Infrastructure like the interstate system, which was built after World War II, is reaching the end of its lifecycle. Bridges are aging and we don’t have the resources to replace them all. Water and sewer systems are getting older and many have not saved the money to replace the pipes and pumps. The 2013 ASCE Report Card for America’s Infrastructure indicated that the United States needs to invest $3.6 trillion in our infrastructure to restore it – that’s $11,400 per person.

Meanwhile, a smaller portion of each citizen’s income is going toward infrastructure. With trust in government eroding, citizens seem less willing to invest in infrastructure, and often question the need for refurbishing infrastructure when they are already paying us to take care of it. While we have seen public support for more roads and other new construction, that support doesn’t carry over to maintaining, operating, or preserving our assets.

What can public works departments do to keep their infrastructure operational, increase efficiency and garner trust from their citizens? I believe the answer lies in using asset management in their maintenance, operations and preservation programs.

The goal of asset management is to meet the needs of our community while spending as little as possible. Simply put, asset management is a systematic approach of optimizing the allocation of scarce resource to meet a defined objective. We like to call it the Goldilocks approach to maintenance and operations – not too much that you are spending money unnecessarily, and not too little that it will cost you more later due to neglect and deferred maintenance, but just the right amount at the right time. By implementing asset management, a public works department could save 20 percent of its maintenance and preservation costs. You can’t afford not to use asset management!

This has always been our goal and I believe our industry invented sustainability long before it became popular, but advancement in technology has opened doors we didn’t have before. Technology has made data easier to collect and process in a much cheaper way. It is exciting to see what is possible today that we didn’t have even five years ago. I keep wondering why we find ourselves still driving around checking to make sure our signs are still there, rather than attaching some technology to the sign that will tell us when the sign falls down. Probably someone has already figured this out, but often we still conduct our maintenance and operations the same way that the person showed us how to do it when we started.

I am excited to say that those I have the privilege of working with are excited to learn about these ideas and try new ways to meet our community’s needs while stretching their goal of efficiency and effective service delivery each year. We have a long way to go, but it is a fun and rewarding journey.

I have found that in order to implement an effective asset management system, agency leadership must be committed to studying and embracing the principles. Employees must be empowered to look at their processes and find solutions through asset management. And the department as a whole must be willing to invest their time and energy with the understanding that it will take time to realize the reward of saving money. One key principle is that the money saved must be reinvested in the infrastructure. Those putting in the energy to optimize their work must be rewarded by seeing their energy go to improve the infrastructure they care so much about.

The only remaining question should be – How do we do this?! I encourage all local governments to investigate this issue more and start experimenting with it in your own public works department. Below are a few examples to get you started.   For more information or assistance on public works asset management, contact MRSC's public works consultant, John Carpita, at

Photo of Tacoma's Murray Morgan Bridge courtesy of Scott Hingst.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of John W. Carpita, PE

About John W. Carpita, PE

John was MRSC’s resource for many years on engineering design, purchasing and contracting issues, local improvement districts, and other infrastructure issues. He had a widely varied career as a consultant, county engineer, city engineer and project manager. He is now retired.