Welcome to our annual analysis of how the nation supports its infrastructure, as reflected by your 2007 budget expectations. Thank you to those of you who took the time to complete the forecast survey we conducted in November.
One-third of you are working with the same figures you were able to beg or borrow for 2006. (“Do more with less?” one respondent chided us. “C'mon—we're doing everything with nothing!”) Subtract higher-than-average asphalt prices, add equipment-replacement costs, and we have the recipe for continuing infrastructure degradation despite your best efforts.
As I perused examples of how you stretch resources, a University of California-Berkeley study concluded that the rich have indeed gotten richer over the past 25 years. The news stirred memories of two conversations I had at a Water Environment Federation meeting last year, leading me to the realization that our communities reflect this polarizing economic trend as well.
Reid Dennis, principal engineer with the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans (incorporated 1805; 2000 median household income: $27,133), was developing a sewer evaluation and remediation plan when Hurricane Katrina hit. While the board wrestles with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for $300 million to repair damages, it still has to move forward on upgrading a deteriorated system for a city that's lost half its residents. Meanwhile, it's losing engineers to consulting firms and better-funded utilities.
Then I ran into Chuck Rogers, a wastewater superintendent for the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks (incorporated 1964; 2000 median household income: $76,815). He's in a bidding war with surrounding communities for talent. Several years ago, city leaders raised $60 million—partially through rate increases—to upgrade his 40-year-old treatment plant to an advanced tertiary facility with nutrient removal, supervisory control and data acquisition, and a new administration building. Were the plant to be hit with a natural disaster, there'd be little question about FEMA's role in restoring it to existing award-winning levels.
Maybe it's not fair to compare the struggles of a young city with those of an old city, especially New Orleans. But a city's affluence is intimately related to its investment in its infrastructure. Like Rogers, the luckiest public works managers work with elected officials willing to suffer short-term pain to fuel their community's long-term growth. Dennis, on the other hand, is caught in the downward spiral of infrastructure decay.
So the next time you're challenged about what you and your team bring to the community, tell them this: Your department creates wealth. The police and fire departments don't make a city grow; you do.
Editor in Chief