Water is the single-biggest infrastructure liability American cities face, as the Environmental Protection Agency estimates a need for $600 billion to be spent over the next 20 years to meet essential drinking and wastewater needs. Here in the District of Columbia, some of our water pipes date all the way back to the Civil War.
U.S. cities and towns are in greater fiscal peril than many of them even realize, as a broken model of development has turned their future balance sheets upside down. As city planner and engineer Charles Marohn has shown, the dispersed settlement pattern that the federal government encouraged for decades through the highway bill and other programs is too often simply unable to provide a tax base capable of supporting the capital investment and ongoing maintenance associated with publicly provided road and utility services. The time is long past to start allowing our local governments to put their fiscal house in order without the federal government continuing to worsen the problem.
Underground infrastructure in particular is among the costliest maintenance a local government confronts, and every dollar that can be saved underground gives localities a little more time to restore their fiscal health. Only an on-the-ground engineer will know the best material to use for any given project in any given soil. But those engineers should be empowered to consider their full range of options, and encouraged to protect the public purse they are entrusted with. When Compass Point Strategies President Darren Beason wrote in The Hill to warn against “an effort to deny those professionals the ability to use their knowledge to select the most appropriate material for the job,” he is actually warning against the opening of infrastructure investment to full competition.