One Voice

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | March 2012, Vol. 67 No. 3

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.