Underground infrastructure Remains A Ghost In The Politics Of Infrastructure Stimulus Discussions

Robert Carpenter Underground Constructionby Robert Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief

I’ve been waiting patiently. Listening intently, viewing all the footage, reading the reports and still I’m not seeing it. There has been virtually no mention of underground infrastructure in any of the coverage and discussions of the pending infrastructure stimulus.

The renowned American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2017 Infrastructure Report Card was released in March and I thought surely that would spur comment. It is a very impressive and effective document. Alas, nothing has happened.

Underground infrastructure, primarily sewer and water, remains as if a ghost in the politics of infrastructure stimulus discussions.

Roads, bridges, airports – even railroads – continuously are cited as in dire need of dollars to restore those vital components of infrastructure back to the top-notch condition Americans have every right to expect. While politicians may talk and legitimate news outlets discuss infrastructure stimulus needs and possibilities, I’ve yet to hear or see a direct citation about the significance of America’s underground infrastructure. Yet those in our industry know there is a desperate need to upgrade that infrastructure or face dire consequences. Without addressing America’s mountain of underground infrastructure problems, third-world status is no-longer so far-fetched.

Of course, the ASCE Report Card does mention drinking water (which received a grade of “D”) and wastewater (D+) in some detail, even outlining recommendations for addressing the needs. The report used a variety of sources to support the D/D+ grades, such as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projections and program summaries, along with numerous association surveys and reports.

The documentation for roads and bridges contains relatively brief source citations compared to water and wastewater. However, the sources for those industries was overwhelming in its factual, empirical, hard data references. There is no question as to the authenticity and corresponding conclusions/grades bestowed upon those markets. The hard evidence is clearly there and impossible to ignore.

I surmise that the reasoning for such an extensive bibliography compared to source materials for roads and bridges is due to the struggle to unequivocally build a case that truly justifies the grades for sewer and water. A case has to be constructed from surveys and expert testimony since hard-core, empirical research is not available – unlike roads and bridges whose condition is well-documented.

For example, since the Interstate 35 Mississippi River Bridge collapse in Minneapolis, MN, literally every bridge has been inspected and classified as to its performance condition. Almost as thorough evidence exists for much of America’s highways and city streets.

But for sewer and water, that kind of hard data doesn’t exist. For the most part, it is speculation and therefore harder to take with as serious a focus as the roads. Further driving the point home is that Congressional leaders, news media and the general public drive the same roads every day, hitting the potholes, driving over asphalt patches or squeezing down a narrow road with crumbling shoulders. Reminders are constant and everywhere.

A trillion-dollar infrastructure plan seemed implausible less than a year ago, when then candidate Donald Trump started touting such a program. But Trump is now the president and remains committed to the plan. The concept has captured attention and support among the Congressional leadership, as infrastructure needs continue to drive public and political conversations.

Obviously, in these difficult times of tight federal money and budget cuts, $1 trillion, even for infrastructure, does not exist. Public/private programs, leveraging private monies, making the stimulus a 10-year program, and other methods of implementation are being considered. With all the president and Congress have on their agenda, combined with party feuding, the infrastructure plan will probably not be implemented or perhaps not even developed until 2018 or later. Still, it seems like a stimulus will become a reality at some point in the near future. With that said, will sewer and water needs be a priority?

Not to make light of the problems of dams, levees, ports, roads, bridges, energy, inland waterways, schools, transit, etc. – their infrastructure problems are real and should be addressed. But it all needs to be placed in proper perspective, triaged if you will, for immediate impacts upon the health and welfare of all Americans. Sewer and water must be an integral part of the conversation. All underground infrastructure organizations and associations must merge their efforts to create a singular, loud voice. Unfortunately, for that voice to be heard, it will take more than a report card.

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