Looking Back, Looking Forward

Nearly 90 attendees heard the city of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department Director Michael Marcotte address the Dec. 9, 2009 luncheon of the Underground Construction Technology Association held in Houston.

Marcotte discussed how the city of Houston’s Public Works has accomplished much in its recent history, and is making new resolutions for the coming years.

In his presentation, “Looking Back, Looking Forward,” Marcotte shared several goals Houston Public Works achieved these past six years under former mayor, Bill White.

Infrastructure goals met include:

  • Wastewater Systems – Houston realized unprecedented levels of success in treating its wastewater systems. All 39 treatment plants are within regulatory compliance parameters.
  • The Capital Program & Implementation Achievement Program – Effective management and better responsiveness to planned projects were accomplished at a cost savings.
  • Sewer Rehabilitation/Replacement Program – The program, managed by city staff, has rehabbed 7 million linear feet of pipe each year at a cost of nearly $1 million per week. All targets were met with many accomplished ahead of schedule.
  • Energy Management & Savings – The city made substantial reductions in energy use, especially in its water and drinking water systems; however, addressing wastewater issues is still a priority.
  • Wastewater Treatment – The city’s public operation can compete successfully with private entities to improve the effectiveness of its water treatment operations.
  • Water & Sewer – Houston has begun receiving money from the federal government Stimulas Act for street resurfacing, but it has yet to receive it for water and sewer projects.
  • Metro – Work is ongoing while protecting the city’s infrastructure

New challenges
Marcotte went on to identify new challenges Houston needs to address under newly elected mayor, Annise D. Parker.

According to Marcotte, Houston is losing the battle to rebuild its infrastructure. “While Houston doesn’t have 100-plus year pipes like other big cities such as Boston, New York and Washington DC, it does have 50- to 60-year pipes that need to be either replaced or rehabilitated,” says Marcotte. “Unfortunately, fewer funds are being invested in Houston’s infrastructure, which impacts the quality of life for Houstonians. In addition, high maintenance costs are passed on to consumers.”

Marcotte does point to Houston as a shining example of one of a few cities in America that can claim it has invested heavily and wisely in the city’s sewer infrastructure.

He went on to explain that as people use less water due to conservation issues and move in to smaller homes that require less water use, this situation creates a “perfect storm.”

“While this may be good for conservationists, it’s not good for businesses that support the infrastructure,” Marcotte said. “With labor costs rising, and water and sewer rates increasing, there is a storm coming. To help combat this storm, the city has employed a company to help them look at ways to be more efficient.”

Flooding issues and the aftermath of Hurricane Ike also has brought the city face-to-face with critical infrastructure issues.

“What was once a force of nature is now a critical infrastructure challenge for Houston,” he said. “We’re learning how to deal with the reality of a 10-inch rainfall in areas that are heavily populated. Hurricane Ike also brought the city face-to-face with water and wastewater systems that are dependent on electrical power. When power outages occurred during the hurricane, the city experienced problems with the water and wastewater systems. Dealing with the reliability of systems during extended power outages is going to require more attention and funds.”

To help resolve these existing challenges more effectively and at a cost savings, Marcotte suggested the city find new technology that works faster, harder and smarter. “Addressing water quality, in particular in Buffalo Bayou, should be of high importance if the city is going to make it a show place for Houstonians,” stressed Marcotte. “At present, it’s not a place you’d even want to dip your toe into due to water quality issues and bacteria.”

Other challenges Marcotte discussed included the most effective use of right-of-ways; balancing the needs of transportation without restricting mobility or construction limits that may have an impact on travel while projects are in progress; and a need for continuing discussion on density (urban sprawl) and how this impacts drainage.

Marcotte closed the meeting by expressing a desire to work with the new mayor during her new term to transition as seamlessly as possible so Houstonians will not experience interrupted service.

For details about UCTA or to attend a meeting, go to www.uctaonline.org.

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