There is one thing you can almost always assume with government managed land and infrastructure -- facilities will likely have a large deferred maintenance backlog. Two examples:
These problems are ubiquitous. You can point to any government parks agency, and most any transit agency, and you will find the same problems.
Why? Well, I have not studied the problem in any academic sense, but I am face-to-face with the problem every day in parks.
Let's start with the reason that is not true -- that somehow budgets can't support capital maintenance. I know for a fact that this is not true in parks. We operate over 100 public parks and are totally up to date with all maintenance and have no deferred maintenance backlog. This is despite the fact that we work with only the fees paid by visitors at the gate. Government agencies typically supplement fees at the gate with an equal amount of tax money and still don't keep up with maintenance. So the issue may be costs or priorities, but the money is there to keep parks fixed up. (I am willing to believe the same is not true of large transit projects, but these projects are known in advance not to be able to cover their lifecycle costs with revenues, and simply hide that fact from taxpayers until it is too late. Thus the sales tax increase that is being requested in Phoenix to keep our new light rail running).
I think the cause lies in a couple areas related to government incentives
- Legislatures never want to appropriate for capital maintenance. If the legislature somehow has, say, $100 million money it can spend on infrastructure, their incentives are to use it to build new things rather than to keep the old things in repair (e.g. to extend a rail line rather than to keep the old one fixed).
- If you want to understand a government agency's behavior, the best rule of thumb is to assume that they are working to maximize the headcount and the payroll budget of their agency. I know that sounds cynical, but if you do not understand an agency's position or priorities, try applying this test: What would the agency be doing or supporting if it were trying to maximize its payroll. You will find this explains a lot
To understand #2, you have to understand that the pay and benefits -- and perhaps most important of all -- the prestige of an agency's leaders is set by its headcount and budgets. Also, there are many lobbying forces that are always trying to pressure an agency, but no group is more ever-present, more ubiquitous, and more vocal than its own staff. Also, since cutting staff is politically always the hardest thing for legislators to do, shifting more of the agency's budget to staff costs helps protect the agency against legislative budget cuts. Non-headcount expenses are raw meat for budget cutters, and the first thing to get swept. By the way, this is not unique to public agencies -- the same occurs in corporations. But corporations, unlike government agencies, face the discipline of markets that places a check on this tendency.
This means that agencies are loath to pay for the outside resources (contractors and materials) that are needed for capital maintenance projects out of their regular budgets. When given the choice of repairing a bathroom at the cost of keeping a staff person, agencies will always want to choose in favor of keeping the staff. They assume capital maintenance can always be done later via special appropriation, but of course we saw earlier that legislators are equally unlikely to prioritize capital maintenance vs. other alternatives.
The other related problem faced is that this focus on internal staff tends to drive up pay and benefits of the agency workers. This drives up the cost of fundamental day to day tasks (like cleaning bathrooms and mowing) and again helps to starve out longer-horizon maintenance functions.
As proof, you only have to look at the mix of agency budgets. Many parks agencies (e.g. New Jersey state parks, which I have studied in depth) have as much as 85% of their budget go to internal staff. My company, which does essentially the same thing (run parks) has about 32% of our budget go to staff. State parks agencies have 50% or more of their staff in headquarters or regional offices. In my company, 99% of the staff is in the parks.
I don't think that these incentives problems can be overcome -- they are simply too fundamental to how government works. Which is why I spend my working hours trying to convince states to privatize the operation of their recreation facilities.