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Our Curse and Where President Obama Got It Wrong

Over the weekend, President Obama announced a plan for $50 billion to go toward transportation improvements. You know the Three R’s: Rail, Roads and Runways. This is a good thing, and these areas do need improvement. But my first question was, “What about water? Where is our money?”

Of course, many will point to the 2009 stimulus and say, you got funds then. Yes we did, but so did transportation ─ why do they get a double dip? The whole reason why transportation got money is that the projects will be visible. The average citizen will drive by a road or railroad project and see what is being done. The whole point is to boost confidence so that the economy will recover.

So why did we not get any money? That is simple; we are not visible. For most people they just turn on the tap and out comes water, or they flush the toilet, and off it goes. Heck, I have talked to people who don’t even know the difference between water treatment and wastewater treatment. In short, we have done too good of a job for too darn long. For this we should all pat ourselves on the back. However, the downside is that we get overlooked.

President Obama needs to know that roads are the backbone of our economy, but we are the immune system. Our efforts, not medicine, have stopped many of the world’s worst diseases dead in their tracks. However, we cannot keep up the good work at current levels of funding. This will lead to contamination and water outages across the United States. What good is a healthy backbone if you are lying flat in bed with a stomach virus? This is what we offer.

Are we truly visible enough? You bet, some of the figures that come across my desk indicate that we have as much as 235,000 treatment facilities. These are all connected to massive pipe networks that reach a majority of the U.S. population. Many of these pipes have long outlived their design life, and failures are common. If we set about replacing these pipes, there would be road crews in and around every suburb and community in the United States. This is visibility. To me, a construction crew in your street is more obvious then seeing a sign at 70 mph that says the project was funded by the stimulus. Both road and water and wastewater would benefit.

Treatment projects would also be visible as each mayor or town manager can brag about their advancement in this critical area. The prospect of protecting public health is a strong play for any politician. It is also a “green” play. Investing in water infrastructure could end the era of bottled water, which uses three liters of water for each liter that is bottled. Plus, you have the oil used in making the bottle, and the resulting landfill issues.

If I had my way, I would use the $50 billion to:

Make funds available only for new projects. This means not allowing currently funded projects to “refinance.” This was done in the original stimulus package. This actually minimized the number of new projects that were started. By only giving this money to new projects, we can start to eliminate the backlog.

Keep, but clarify the “Buy American” clause. In my opinion, it would probably be best to get rid of the clause. But politically, this won’t fly. The Buy American clause must be clear and not cause months of debate at the expense of job creation.

Divide the project list into three different timelines: short-, medium- and long-term. Short-term would be projects that could be completed within 18 months. Medium-term projects could be started after 18 months but finished in 36 months. Long-term would be projects after 36 months. The $50 billion would then be divided equally among the three categories. If a category did not need the full amount, then the remainder would be shifted to the next category. This would kick start the process now, but ensure long-term investment so that the economy would truly benefit.

Don’t make this a loan. Some municipalities can’t afford a loan no matter how low the interest rate is. This is especially true of rural areas where jobs creation possibilities are limited. Thus, a loan prohibits improvements in these areas. Since we have three categories, then let’s tax Americans directly three times over a period of three years. This would be $53.94 each year per American ($50B divided by 309 million people). Of course, some would be excluded and others would pay more. Isn’t 54 bucks worth it? For me, $54 is a nice dinner out for my family.

President Obama did not notice us during his latest stimulus package. That, in my opinion, is because we do a great job. However, water spending has serious upside possibilities for politicians. But to get our fair share, we need to be much more vocal to Washington and point this out. After all, the health of our nation is much more important then transportation.

Posted by Grant Van Hemert, P.E., Schneider Electric Water Wastewater Competency Center on Sep 07, 2010

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