One Voice

The proposed Federal Highway Bill was big news in the mass media and construction press in late February/early March. I suspect thefunding debate will be continuing well into the spring months.

The House version of the highway bill that cleared committee has clearly taken a new path but it is doubtful it can stay the course.But there is at least a permanent base funding source for highways and bridges (Highway Trust Fund) and for years it worked pretty well as a method of collecting funds from drivers to pay for America’s roads – basically a dedicated user fee. But not anymore. Much of the nation’s roads, particularly the interstate highway system built in the 50s and 60s, are in poor condition and overdue for a massive rebuild (or rehab if you will). As our driving habits have slowed, revenue plateaued and the Federal government has been forced for some time now to supplement highway funding to the tune of many billions annually.

Sound familiar? It should. The sewer/water infrastructure has been wrestling with this dynamic for a couple of decades. (While gas/oil distribution and transmission pipelines also have age-related issues, they are private entities and responsible for their own funding.) But unlike the highway/bridge/airport infrastructure, sewer/water has never had a dedicated federal funding source. Yes, the Clean Water Act and State Revolving Loan funds have helped, but they were not designed to be permanent solutions and the amounts have been steadily decreasing. Even when the funding levels were higher, it was never at adequate levels. We’re now $650 billion in the hole, and growing, while those federal programs continue to decrease. (President Obama’s proposed 2013 fiscal year budgetcuts another 7 percent from the EPA water infrastructure funding.)

Another primary difference is that the highways/bridges faction is relatively well-organized and speaks with a unified and powerful voice. That’s why they’ve gotten so much attention at the Congressional level. The underground infrastructure community is struggling to find a united voice to present our case in such a way as to not be ignored. The Clean Water Council is a good concept, comprised of 39 association members. But their effectiveness has been hampered by lack of support from the sewer/water industry’s three most powerful entities: Water Environment Federation, American Water Works Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

While I understand that they each have their own agendas, one would think the piping infrastructure, so critical to their members, would be near the top of those agendas. Sadly, that’s not the case. ASCE by definition is extremely diverse. The underground infrastructures interests typically funnel through the Pipelines Committee. However, that committee is very much restricted in what it can and cannot do. The ASCE’s Report Card on America (last updated in 2009) is a strong message but unfortunately it is mixed in with other infrastructure grades and after a brief spat of national publicity, interest and concern wanes with our attention-deficit Congress.

The leadership of WEF and AWWA seem to be primarily concerned with treatment and processing. In fact, WEF’s tag line is “The Water Quality People” and AWWA calls itself the “Authoritative Resource on Safe Water.” No doubt these are extremely important areas of focus. However, thewastewater collections systems or potable water distribution systems are equally important and deserving of attention and support.

Way back in my college days, I took a freshman PoliSci class consisting of a lecture taught by a professor to more than 250 students on Mondays, then much smaller lab classes on Wednesdays and Fridays. The labs were supposed to supplement, support and prepare us for the professor’s weekly lecture to the masses using his book as the course reference source.

The textbook was authored by the professor. Problem was that the labs were taught by a dozen graduate assistants who never seemed to talk to each other, let alone the professor. Each assistant cruised through the textbook at their own teaching pace. When we got back to the full lecture each week, there were literally a dozen student groups on a different page. It eventually got worked out, but it took weeks of unnecessary and counter-productive mass mayhem.

The book of public infrastructure funding is intimidating to anyone wanting to investigate the subject. The chapters are diverse, poorly organized and difficult to process. In short, it is Washington at its worse. And unfortunately, the underground infrastructure is mired and lost in those thousands of pages.