Measuring Infrastructure Performance Is Complex

Performance is the execution of a task or fulfillment of a promise or claim. Musicians give a good performance when they play well, provide listeners with insights to the meaning and emotion behind the music, and entertain their audiences. Employees of large companies have annual performance reviews to reflect on how well they and their immediate supervisors think they are doing their jobs.
For civil infrastructure, performance has something to do with moving people and goods, supplying water, removing wastes, and keeping us comfortable. However, just as we might disagree about whether a singer has given a good performance, individual infrastructure users, companies that depend on infrastructure, government agencies that build it, people who live near the facilities, and others may have their own ideas about both what is the task or promise the infrastructure should fulfill and how well the job is being done. Because these several groups all play a role in shaping our infrastructure, determining how it is used, and taking advantage of the services (or disservices, as some might say) delivered, we often refer to them as stakeholders.
These stakeholders are a wonderfully diverse bunch and their ideas are dynamic. Trying to understanding what might be meant by “good performance” for infrastructure gets complicated. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s and ‘60s built the Buford Dam and others along the Chattahoochee River for power generation, flood control, and navigation purposes. Lake Lanier, a large reservoirs created near Atlanta, Georgia, became an important part of that growing region’s water supply as well as a popular recreation area. Downstream, where the river joins with others rolling south toward the Gulf of Mexico, oyster harvests in Apalachicola Bay depend on the freshwater flows. The states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia have feuded for decades over the water management in the river basins. Since construction of the Buford Dam and Lake Lanier was completed in 1957, the tasks they are expected to perform have certainly shifted.
Sometimes stakeholders are very direct in stating the broader objectives they have in mind. Public works investments during Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” era, for example, were planned to give jobs to some of the legions of people left unemployed by the Great Depression as well as to provide the services of municipal buildings and libraries. Huge water projects built in the vast and largely empty southwestern areas of the United States were intended to enable settlement and consolidate the nation’s hold on land which (to quote Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Gift Outright) “was ours before we were the land’s.” The spending of public funds on new roads and water mains is routinely justified by expected gains in property values and subsequent tax revenues expected when newly accessible and serviced land is developed.
Sometimes our objectives are less overt. Some highways built in urban centers during the 1950s and ‘60s were viewed by their planners as instruments of slum clearance as well as transportation arteries. Public backlash gave rise to more general resistance to new construction and the term NIMBY—“Not in my back yard!”—that has since come to be recognized in many languages. A recent Saint Index© survey of U.S. attitudes about real estate projects and development found that our extended economic downturn may be softening opposition to new development in general, 74 percent of American adults still do not want it in their own community.
Sometimes we simply have too narrow a perspective. Vitruvius, the 1st Century BC Roman who gave us the 10-book De Architectura, wrote famously that our infrastructure should not only ward off hostile attack, glorify the gods, and enhance public convenience, but should do so with “strength, utility, grace.” A panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences to consider principles for improving the nation’s infrastructure (full disclosure: I served as the staff support and a primary report author-editor) asserted that we must manage our infrastructure to “… incorporate effective recognition of infrastructure as a multimodal and multipurpose system—a stream of services—as well as an armature of community development.” In other words, no infrastructure should be conceived of as doing only one thing.
In any case, whether the objectives, promises, or claims are narrowly or broadly conceived, explicitly or implicitly stated, the performance of infrastructure as a public investment must be judged by how well it serves the community. Measuring the return on investment will always be complicated.

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