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The Federal Highway Administration and Congress disagree on whether “Buy America” provisions can be waived on a contract-by-contract basis for bridge projects.

The FHWA is encouraging departments to consider pipe made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, polyvinyl chloride, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and other plastics.

Plastic pipe isn't necessarily cheaper than concrete or steel: sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, says Jim Goddard, chief engineer of Advanced Drainage Systems Inc., the world's largest producer of corrugated HDPE pipe. He points to a study by the Ohio DOT, which shows that with competition for a contract for 18- to 48-inch diameter pipe, the cost of the total installed job drops 22% compared to a sole-source contract.

Utah, California, and Oregon have requested bids on plastic pipe for culverts and storm sewers for years, but most states have not—for several reasons.

When Appendix A became a part of FHWA regulations 30 years ago, there were many more suppliers of concrete and steel pipe. Those markets have contracted so much over the past three decades that there may only be one supplier of concrete and steel pipe in any given state.

Also, plastic culvert pipe was nearly unheard of when Appendix A was codified, and its acceptance was inhibited by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), which published standards only for plain galvanized or asphalt-coated reinforced concrete and corrugated steel pipe.

Even as the pipe market changed and AASHTO added standards for materials such as HDPE, some state departments continued to use Appendix A to justify soliciting bids only from concrete or steel pipe suppliers.

Edmund Parker, PE, chief engineer at the Rhode Island DOT, says his state uses HDPE pipe for some applications.

“If backfill isn't done properly, 24-inch-plus plastic pipes can become oval,” he says. Parker adds he can continue to consider or ignore plastic pipe on a project-by-project basis based on the caveat in the FHWA's final rule. However, his and other government agencies must be able to document their material selection decision on a project or program basis.

Tony Radoszewski, executive director of the Plastics Pipe Institute, says members that sell corrugated polyethylene pipe have asked the association to alert public works departments to the elimination of Appendix A. “There's a lack of awareness out there to the change,” he says. To that end, the group's member companies have written letters, visited, and made phone calls to help build awareness.

At Last: Corps Of Engineers Funding Approved

Congress is poised to authorize a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorization bill that will open the door to funding for hundreds of public works projects in 2008, to the tune of about $1.6 billion.

Congress usually passes a Corps authorization every two years, but it's been six years since the last reauthorization.

Besides the typical flood-damage reduction, navigation, hurricane and storm damage reduction, and environmental restoration projects, the Water Resource Development Act (H.R. 1495) also contains “environmental infrastructure”—i.e., wastewater and drinking water—projects. While cities and counties have funded these projects with loans from the U.S. EPA's Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, some haven't qualified for technical and other reasons.

While the backlog of projects has been authorized, the Corps still has to pay for construction out of its annual appropriations from Congress. So there's no telling how quickly these projects will get done. But at least they're one giant step closer to completion.

— Steve Barlas has served as a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer for trade and professional magazines since 1981. In that time, he has covered nearly every federal regulatory agency, cabinet department, and congressional committee, with a special emphasis on the U.S. EPA.