What Really Is ‘Deferred Maintenance’?

The recent release of the “Infrastructure Report Card” by the American Society of Civil Engineers saw the inland waterways category bumped up to D+ from a straight D for the last report card, in 2017, and from a D- in the one before that. 

“The latest report card does recognize that we’ve been doing better,” said Tom Heinold, chief of operations for the Rock Island Engineer District. 

The report card praises the opening of Olmsted Locks  and Dam, which happened since the last report card. But it notes, ““[T]he [Corps] lacks a definition of deferred maintenance, and as a result there are different estimates of how much deferred maintenance exists on the system. The USACE backlog of authorized projects that are waiting for appropriations funding is $6.8 billion. The agency reports a navigation backlog of $2.7 billion annually in unmet maintenance work activities.”

To Heinold, this is a longstanding conversation. It’s one that the Corps has been having internally for decades. 

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“The Corps of Engineers has different business lines: navigation, flood control, recreation, and ecosystem restoration,” Heinold said.  They are funded separately, and the Corps can’t control how much they are funded by Congress. Each mission or business line maintains different sets of assets for different purposes, not all of which are equally critical. They are located in different geographies, where similar types of wear might have very different outcomes. 

Risk Assessment Protocols

About 10 years ago, the Corps set up a risk assessment protocol for all locks and dams, called an operational risk assessment (ORA), Heinold said. The protocols direct the inspection of various components like miter gates for locks or tainter gates for dams, and assigns them letter grades called operational condition assessments (OCAs). The OCA is then factored together with the possible consequences of failure to arrive at the ORA, which drives the priority for deferred maintenance. Components that are part of high-use facilities are given more urgency than those in less-used waterways. 

Heinold said those assessments have made a real difference. “Up until about 2010, we were losing the deferred maintenance battle. From about 2010 to 2012, we were treading water, just keeping up with the need. But since about 2012, the Corps has been turning the tide. I think the ASCE report card was a recognition of that.”

Heinold cautions that the Corps can’t advocate directly for its own funding. It must work within the limits of what Congress gives it. Advocacy is the job of the various industry groups like Waterways Council Inc.

The Corps must present lists of priorities up the chain until they reach the Office of Management and Budget and ultimately Congress. It takes a lot of time to prepare those reports, which means that items in the top half of the priority list will get more detailed attention than those in the lower half. 

“We did a report for LaGrange Lock on the Illinois Waterway in 2005 that showed it needed major rehabilitation, and we finally got to do the work in 2020, 15 years later,” Heinold said.  A lot can happen in 15 years: materials get more expensive, potential contractors go out of business, more wear and tear happens to the equipment, etc. Any cost estimate has a short shelf life. “We don’t necessarily have detailed estimates for items in the lower half of the list that might not get funded for 10 years or longer.” Preparing such estimates would be a waste of resources, he said, since their assumptions would quickly age.

Return Of Earmarks

Heinold adds that the Corps also has plans for any extra money it might get. As earmarks get revived, that is important. Heinold remembers the earmark era, when individual members of Congress could direct added funding toward particular projects, or even parts of a project, within their district. Since earmarks were suspended by Congress in 2011, projects have had to be evaluated as a whole. “The earmark era was a very different environment,” he said. “We used to know on October 1 whether or not a project would be funded, and to what extent.” 

It always helps when Corps infrastructure advocates have a success story to tell. These days, they have two strong recent stories: the successful completion of Olmsted Lock and Dam, ahead of schedule and under previous budgets; and the successful rehab work on five locks and dams on the Illinois Waterway in 2020, which Heinold supervised. 

“We’ve proven that we can get projects built with earmarks or without them,” he said.