Remember (indeed, how could one forget) when the interstate bridge in downtown Minneapolis collapsed in 2007? Anti-government factions used the fatal failure as an example of how poorly folks' hard-earned tax dollars are invested, of government inefficiency and bureaucracy. As a nation, we coughed up a little more funding for the nation's bridge program, gave the Minnesota DOT (MnDOT) $250 million in emergency funds to replace the asset, did some investigating and assessed some blame, and then moved on to the next episode of American Idol.
But you and I know what the incident was really about. Resources for the water and roads serving the world's wealthiest nation have been and always will be short, requiring that the stewards of those assets make difficult decisions about when, where, and how to spend resources because there's never enough to go around. The odds are that sometimes — as in the case of Mn-DOT — you lose the gamble. All things considered, U.S. citizens get far more value for their tax dollar than they realize.
Emergency relief gets things done quickly, but we can't let it become, by default, the mechanism for funding infrastructure. That's like feeding a pig a strawberry: a nice treat that contributes virtually nothing toward meeting the creature's daily caloric needs.
In some ways, that's what we have in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. On one hand, there's no sense in looking a gift horse in the mouth, especially when stipulations like matching grants are suspended. It's good to hear that the stimulus package is paying for more than half the improvements a town like Anderson, Ind., needs to meet a consent decree regarding combined sewer overflows. Or that Norman, Okla., won't have to raise water rates again to fund treatment plant upgrades that have been in the works for three years. With bids on virtually all construction work nationwide coming in under estimates, even departments that haven't received funding are coming out ahead.
The law has put people to work doing basic resurfacing and replacement, but all this activity represents a fraction of the vast market for infrastructure improvement. Even with this one-time infusion, cities, counties, and states are struggling and will continue to struggle to make ends meet. We desperately need new models for funding operation and maintenance, ones that go beyond temporarily transferring the headache to the private sector through long-term leases and public-private partnerships to real paradigm shifts.
So what's the real impact of this legislation? Expectations on both sides — yours and your constituents' — were raised and, as usual, you have to manage the fallout. We're developing a series of case studies on how to squeeze even more water from a stone. Next month, for example, we'll look at how one utility department created a dedicated stormwater function. We'll look at how to reprioritize capital improvement plans, keep better track of projected revenues vs. revenues received, and step up collection on delinquent tax or fee accounts.
When you were in school, or considering this profession, did anyone tell you that this would be a major part of the job?