The Straits Times says

Building facilities that work, and last

The Trump administration's focus on America's ageing infrastructure is well placed. The country's bridges were rated C+ and its roads and mass transit systems got a D from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Neglected by politicians for decades, many structures are nearing the end of their lifespan. In sharp contrast, its strategic rival, China, is going great guns on infrastructural development both at home and farther afield. In Asia generally, there is a huge appetite for new ports, rail networks, dams and such - a market that will expand to 60 per cent of global demand by 2025, said a PWC Capital study.

Here, Changi Airport's Terminal 5 and the Tuas mega port are future projects which are vital for the preservation of the city's hub status. Broader benefits are envisaged in other projects, such as the Greater Southern Waterfront development and the relocation of Paya Lebar airbase. When undertaken at a district or regional level, infrastructure can be integrated and updated with new features. Alongside planning innovative facilities, existing infrastructure will require attention, as highlighted by MRT disruptions, lift breakdowns and outages affecting telco and even SingPass services. Thus, life cycle planning is a must for all infrastructure, with predictive maintenance and parts replacement done ahead of the curve so that the system is not brought to its knees by, say, the failure of a single component.

The location of certain works being potentially contentious, the politics of infrastructure cannot be ignored - namely, the question of "who gets what, when and how," in the words of political scientist Harold Lasswell. Also problematic is the question of funding. By one estimate, Asia's annual funding requirement is over US$747 billion - a sum which is well beyond the Asian Development Bank, while the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank can potentially provide up to US$30 billion a year. Consequently, governments will have to consider various infrastructure delivery models, characterised by high front-loaded costs paid for over time via levies on those making windfall gains from developments, fees paid by users, or the contributions of all taxpayers. To leverage private capital, workable public private partnership agreements ought to be studied too.

These are issues that are well worth debating now rather than later, as exigencies might well arise from out of the blue, like extreme rainfall which overwhelms existing infrastructure. In some cases, there could be large-scale devastation, as when Hurricane Katrina struck part of the United States in 2005, causing over US$100 billion in damage. Globally, it will be even more challenging to fund major infrastructure projects should interest rates rise at a time when "government debt remains high in every region", as credit rating agency Fitch warned last month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline 'Building facilities that work, and last'. Print Edition | Subscribe