811 Successes

A notable, five-year anniversary was reached recently for a benchmark industry damage prevention program. And while it received some publicity, perhaps the program didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, especially when one considers the benefits – including health and safety – that have been credited to a simple three digit number: 811.

The federally-mandated national “Call Before You Dig” number 811 was created to help protect not only utility contractors, but the public in general, from unintentionally hitting underground utility lines while working on digging projects. Being principally promoted by the Common Ground Alliance, the 811 awareness program has been touted as being even more successful than most had dreamed possible. Much of the CGA’s recent annual convention highlighted the awareness and rapid growth of people using 811.

The “811 – Know what’s below. Call before you dig,” branding program has driven public recognition to high levels. The logo/message is even featured in NASCAR races. A car is sponsored as the 3M/811 #16 Ford Fusion.

Perhaps the most unique application and awareness-building effort for 811 appears in the form of a custom motorcycle. Paul Teutul, Jr., star of the Discovery Channel’s hit series “American Chopper: Junior vs. Senior,” was contacted by One Call Concepts President/CEO Tom Hoff about building a chopper as a way to “give back” to the industry. Teutul took the project to heart and even featured it on his television show. He attended the convention where the custom chopper was displayed.

The industry support for 811 has come from many companies and in many forms. One of the most notable supporters has been John Deere. The company has aggressively promoted the use of 811 throughout its organization, dealers and to its customers.

Of course, 811 is just part of the CGA’s efforts to raise awareness and ensure safety in underground utility construction. Officially formed in 2000, the CGA represents a continuation of the damage prevention efforts embodied by the Common Ground Study which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and completed in 1999. The initiative represented the collaborative work of 160 industry professionals who identified best practices relating to damage prevention. The CGA has grown to over 1,400 individual members, 180 member organizations and 44 sponsors.

The CGA estimates that as many as one-third of underground utility damage incidents are the result of a failure to call 811 — in other words, incidents that could have been prevented. But by any definition, the CGA efforts have been incredibly successful.

Still, said CGA President Bob Kipp, there’s more to be done. “We’ve gotten the low hanging fruit. Now it’s time to reach for the next level.”

Promoting water funding
A recent study titled “Public Water Works!” conducted by Corporate Accountability International (CAI), reports that people across political party lines overwhelmingly support the critical need to invest in the nation’s public water systems.

“As this report finds, in a time of economic uncertainty and political partisanship, people across the U.S. are sure of this: public water works,” said CAI Executive Director Kelle Louaillier. “By ceasing to neglect our most essential public service, we can create jobs, grow the economy and help safeguard the health of generations to come.”

The report documents how, over the last 35 years, the federal commitment to public water systems has gone from covering 78 percent of clean water spending to just 3 percent today. In fiscal year 2010, federal appropriations reached a 16-year high of $1.4 billion – less than one-tenth of what was needed to close the annual water infrastructure investment gap, estimated at $23 billion per year.

Further, the report highlights the fact that closing the investment gap would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs over the next five years.

While this is another alarming report in a long list of such information, replete with facts and figures, it doesn’t change the fact that sewer/water public infrastructure funding is considered an expendable element in an out-of-control budget. While roads and bridges have a funding source (even if inadequate), the water/sewer infrastructure is increasingly forced to discover its own funding sources. While that may sound good in theory, the reality is that even in a healthy economy, cities will never be able to address their infrastructure needs on their own. In fact, cities are worried that they cannot realistically raise user fees enough to cover basic operating costs and emergency repairs, let alone reinvest in maintenance and badly-needed system upgrades.

Any way you spin it, money for water and sewer infrastructure seems like a win-win: good for public health and good for job creation. Now if we can just get someone at the Federal level to listen . . .

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