September 2015 Vol. 70 No. 9

Editor's Log

The Risk Of Narrow Vision

Robert Carpenter

The sewer and water infrastructure industry has again been pushed to the rear of significance and importance by states desperate to maintain their road and bridge funding. Consequently, in the short-lived attention spans of politicians, sewer and water has shifted back to “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” status.

For much of America’s construction industry, all eyes are focused on efforts to maintain – perhaps even expand – funding mechanisms for transportation infrastructure. Recently, a three-month extension passed Congress to keep funds flowing for road and bridge projects, primarily through the Highway Trust Fund.

Additionally, an aggressive bill called the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act (DRIVE) cleared the Senate with strong bi-partisan support, 91-4. The bill would provide more than $40 billion in revenues to cover shortfalls in the Highway Trust funding during the first three years of the legislation’s six-year authorization. Of course, DRIVE is contingent upon identifying funding to cover the investments, passing the House, and the President must still sign the act into law. Realistically, this is one of those pie-in-the-sky moves meant to buy political good will.

Still, it shows the breadth and depth of significance Congress and the construction industry place on roads and bridges. Indeed, most states get about half of their transportation funding from Washington.

The options that the Congressional Budget Office laid out two months ago for keeping the trust fund solvent were disturbing: raise the gas tax by 10 to 15 cents per gallon, cut spending on roadways by 30 percent and on transit by 65 percent or transfer $18 billion from the general tax fund.

Certainly, these are radical solutions for a radical situation that most likely will never be enacted. However, I can’t help but ask: where are the radical solutions to at least be considered for the life-giving sewer and water infrastructure?
What little funding remains for the two primary federal sewer/water funding programs, continue to diminish becoming political fodder to be distributed to other questionable programs. Little overall effort has been invested into finding long-term solutions. A water trust fund idea in various forms has been bounced around for several years without gaining much traction. It has been suggested that some kind of tax on trendy bottled water would be a great starting point. But no one listens, no one takes action and the concept of a water infrastructure trust fund languishes still.

Increasingly, states and local municipalities are left to address their own funding efforts which, unfortunately, takes a back seat to road and bridge needs – unless the EPA comes calling (which is occurring with increased regularity). From time to time, I hear of an industry best practice of replacing 1 percent of a municipality’s piping annually to maintain a system. Several cities boast of “aggressively” keeping their systems in top shape by adhering to the 1 percent plan. In theory, such a plan allows an entire system to be turned over every 100 years which should align nicely with the design life of modern pipe materials. Nice theory and as long as there are never major mitigating factors – which inevitably happens – it might even work. Kudos to those cities that are at least trying to deal with their problems.

But when those unpredictable soil conditions, weather events, unexpected growth, increased system demands, joint stresses and dozens of other related factors occur, systems must be upgraded, rehabilitated or simply replaced. Life happens – even in the underground infrastructure – and usually it is very expensive.

Further, the 1 percent plan can’t begin to cover rehabilitation or replacement of pipes installed before the last decade or so. It is estimated that in excess of $4 trillion is needed over the next 20 years to meet the challenges of maintaining our underground infrastructure. But hopes of reinvesting into job-providing infrastructure needs – above and below ground – faded almost as fast as the national debt has risen in recent years.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know when the nation is talking infrastructure investment, sewer and water must be in the conversation. I hate as much as anybody to break an axel in a pot hole or be inconvenienced by roadwork. No doubt, it is important and necessary for quality of life. However, that infrastructure crisis pales in comparison to disease and decay wrought from the breakdown of the cornerstone of modern civilization’s public health and safety – a basic sewer system and delivery of clean water.

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