Local public works officials and federal bureaucrats often find themselves partners and adversaries at the same time. Although they serve the same citizens in the long run, they frequently have conflicting perspectives of the problem at hand. Bridging those gaps requires a relentless focus on open communications.
Bruce Florquist, retired public works director for Rawlings, Wyo., is a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Drinking Water Advisory Council. He said an essential role for utilities—no matter their size—is to maintain full communications so that the public, government officials, and federal regulatory agencies will appreciate the need to advance projects and maintain or expand infrastructure.
Judith Mueller, public works director for Charlottesville, Va., has found that focused communications have helped keep a city bus transit center project on track. In the heart of its downtown, Charlottesville is building a transfer center for buses serving the city, Albemarle County, and the University of Virginia. The structure, on the east end of the downtown mall, would accommodate buses on the lower level and house a visitor information center on the upper level.
The latest estimate for the project is $10.5 million, financed through the U.S. DOT's Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and state grants.
Adding to the costs has been the city's compliance with the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design criteria. Those standards stress environmentally friendly construction techniques, water and energy efficiency, recycled content materials, and indoor environmental quality.
CLOSE WORKING RELATIONSHIPS
Mueller, a past president of the American Public Works Association board, said the key to working with the FTA is to keep the agency briefed on a project's problems and progress. She praised the FTAfor working to ensure that Charlottesville officials fully understood the regulations behind the federal grants.
“We've tried to keep them informed every step of the way,” she said. “Our biggest success has come from our face-to-face meetings. I don't think that's always the case with other projects, and I think other projects may suffer because of it.” Completion of the Charlottesville transfer center is due in September.
Consultant William Spearman said that it is essential for public works officials to work closely with federal agencies well before—not just after—disasters strike. Spearman is vice president of Woolpert Inc., a Columbia, S.C., engineering, architectural, geospatial, and consulting services firm.
“One of the biggest issues that cities and counties face today is debris cleanup following natural disasters. Fortunately, you don't have those every day, but when they do occur, the debris can create many problems for local governments,” he said.
In declared emergencies—like hurricanes, tornadoes, and ice storms—the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) helps pay for debris removal from public property (including roads) and from private roads to ensure access by emergency vehicles.
For instance, due to the tremendous scope of Hurricane Katrina's damage last year, FEMA agreed to pay for removal of debris from private property in many areas. The agency told Congress that removal costs were $10 to $20 per cubic yard for normal debris. It reimburses local governments 100% of the costs of hauling debris in the month or two following the disaster (depending on the event) but only 75% longer term.
Spearman said FEMA's reimbursements often have been controversial when local governments were stuck with costs they might have avoided. “It's good that these catastrophic incidents happen so infrequently, but the other side of the coin is that the local governments can lose their expertise at getting their maximum reimbursement,” he said.
He said cities and counties should work with FEMA before disasters occur to fully understand the agency's regulations and ensure their disaster plans fit FEMA's reimbursement criteria. “Learning a set of rules doesn't just work in the middle of an emergency, when you have to get things done immediately. You definitely can lose out on some of those reimbursements if you don't truck [debris] right,” he said.
Spearman said governments also should take preemptive actions such as selecting potential temporary debris storage areas and developing methods to certify that the volumes of storm debris are actually transported.
NEGOTIATION IS KEY
Kurt Corey, public works director for Eugene, Ore., said close communication with federal agencies has benefited two of his city's major projects. The long-planned West Eugene Parkway would be a four-lane 5.8-mile artery connecting Highway 99 to Highway 126. Eugene voters have twice approved the highway, but it would cross part of the West Eugene Wetlands, requiring approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The parties involved were able to negotiate a mitigation bank program in the early 1990s to preserve the highest quality wetlands areas and allow commercial industrial/development of marginal areas.
Corey said because of conflicting interests, city and state relations with the federal agencies have been tenuous at times. “We've made an effort to meet periodically to discuss mutual objectives and seek ways to balance the development that the community wanted with the desire of the agencies to protect wetlands,” he said.
The highway project is awaiting completion of a final environmental impact statement later this year. “As a parallel effort, the community and stakeholders are participating in a collaborative process to see if there are any alternatives that might not have been considered yet,” said Corey.
On the Delta Ponds project, the Eugene public works department has worked closely with the USACE and a number of other groups. Delta Ponds is a 150-acre, former gravel pit area along the Willamette River in the heart of the city. Since acquiring the property, the city has spent nearly $2 million to improve trails, add parking, and remove non-native invasive plants. The USACE has spent $6 million to reconnect the flood-plain ponds to the Willamette River and improve the water flow to the ponds.
The project has broad community support. Twenty-eight public, private, and nonprofit entities have pledged actions that would ensure that the project is finished in a timely fashion.
“Maintaining relationships is crucial to moving these projects along, whether you actually hit a big point of disagreement or not,” said Corey. “Our approach has been to try to anticipate what problems that might be coming up. Because we meet periodically with our partners, there are probably a number of problems that were prevented because we talked about them way up front, especially those involving staffing and the flow of funding.”
FOLLOW THE RULES
Monica Hobbs Vinluan, a National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) senior policy associate, said public works departments should keep an eye on administrative law—the body of rules, regulations, procedures, orders, and decisions issued by federal agencies.
For example, she said last year NRPA campaigned to reverse a June 2005 U.S. Department of Labor “fact sheet” that impacted the group's members. Federal agencies sometimes issue fact sheets to clarify existing regulations, avoiding the process of a formal revised rulemaking. In fact sheet No. 60, the department indicated that the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibited 15-year-olds from working as lifeguards at swimming pools featuring “elevated slides, artificial waves, or other amusement-type ‘rides' or mechanical devices.” For its fact sheet, the department had reverted to old child labor laws that had not been intended to cover water parks.
“The ripple effects of the revision would have had long-term and potentially detrimental impacts on the basic operation of our members' aquatic facilities,” said Vinluan.
Aside from the ban itself, she said it was unclear if 15-year-olds could work as lifeguards at a normal swimming pool at a water park, and how the change would be applied to pools operated by park and recreation agencies.
NRPA's Public Policy Division joined with the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the World Waterpark Association, and the American Red Cross to lobby the Labor Department for a reversal. “We felt that pulling together a few organizations representing thousands of different aquatic facility operators would have the most impact for our advocacy efforts with the department,” said Vinluan.
Coalition members met several times with Labor Department officials and arranged for them to visit a water park to observe 15-year-old lifeguards on the job and specific water park features.
Their efforts paid off in January. Labor issued a compliance letter that allowed trained and certified 15-year-olds to work as lifeguards at water parks, except as dispatchers or attendants at the top of water slides (because machinery might be present).
— Crow is a freelance writer based in Houston.
Water groups formalize mutual aid system
The nightmare of Hurricane Katrina has prompted water and wastewater utilities to lay the groundwork for their mutual assistance during the next disaster. Earlier this year, eight water and wastewater organizations pledged to encourage water utilities to establish intrastate networks to provide personnel, equipment, materials, and associated services to each other in emergencies.
The eight groups were the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the Water Environment Federation, the National Association of Water Companies, the National Rural Water Association, the Association of State Drinking Water Agencies, and the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators.
“Hurricane Katrina was a real wake-up call to the whole country,” said AWWA executive director Jack Hoffbuhr. “The water community has a long history of working toward emergency preparedness, and these mutual aid networks are the next step. They will provide rapid, short-term deployment of emergency assistance to any water or wastewater utility affected by either natural or manmade events.”
According to AWWA, Hurricane Katrina caused more than $2.25 billion in damages to public drinking water infrastructure. National water groups responded by facilitating relief donations from their members, manufacturers, consultants, and individuals.
Fulfilling its pledge to the other seven groups, AWWA recently issued a paper, “Utilities Helping Utilities,” that suggested a framework for intrastate mutual aid networks among water utilities. The paper said key elements of a response plan were: a steering committee; pre-event emergency response plans; methods for afflicted utilities to communicate their needs; a single statewide assistance pact that also addressed insurance and liability issues; tools for normal communications among members (such as a Web site); and regularly scheduled meetings and training sessions.
The AWWA paper also explored interstate response initiatives for exchanging resources, using the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) program. EMAC provides the legal framework for states to share resources, personnel, and equipment in response to disasters. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and two U.S. territories participate in EMAC.
Separately, the NRWA issued mutual aid guidelines tailored for its rural water company members. It offered as models to the existing associations used by Florida and Texas rural water utilities.
NRWA noted any emergency response system “should be developed based on the needs, unique circumstances, and the matrix of organizations” involved.