Other than the issue of election reform, the most pressing national problem is the need to address roads, ports, bridges, electrical grids, airports, tunnels, subways, and other parts of our infrastructure that is falling apart in front of our eyes. Over the past months, we have read countless news stories about all the reasons legislation about passing infrastructure is hard and seemingly impossible to fund.
But against that template of too many reports out of Washington comes the actual work done by a city mayor to make sure infrastructure was not neglected.
That success story took place in Madison, Wisconsin.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure assigns a letter grade based on the physical condition and needed investments for infrastructure improvements. For 2021 they have rated the problem a C-.
Their data shows there is a water main break every two minutes with an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day in our nation. I need not alert readers to the condition of our roadways, so it will come as no surprise they report that 43% of our streets and byways are in poor or mediocre condition, a number that has remained stagnant over the past years.
This year a most dogged pursuit of a wide-encompassing infrastructure plan is being waged by President Joe Biden. There are many groups talking with each other in DC with the aim to fashion some type of bipartisan compromise, both in terms of projects to be undertaken and the means to fund them.
When I was a younger man the politics of such matters would have already resulted in a bill passing Congress. After all, when there are projects to upgrade an airport in Oregon, refurbish train rails in Mississippi, and enhance Milwaukee’s expressway it is easy to see how the nation wins. It also shows how each political party scores a victory, too. Now, however, partisan gridlock is the force that dominates and prevents the infrastructure needs of the nation from being resolved.
This weekend I was searching for news stories about upgrading infrastructure when I came across one from the place I live. This can-do story from May 2016 in the Washington Post underscores what leadership and gritty determination can do when infrastructure needs must be handled. Madison’s lead water pipes were creating health concerns and needed to be replaced.
The photo below really made an impact, as it demonstrated the degree of the problem in our city. Consider how many other places coast to coast have similar problems. The article noted at the time an estimated 6 million or more lead pipes that remain in use nationwide — by more than 11,000 community water systems that serve as many as 22 million Americans. (This is why we fight for a massive infrastructure bill.)
The leadership required to make the costly upgrades came from former Mayor Sue Bauman. She used her political skills and continued insistence that the pipes had to be replaced. I was proud of that resolve as it played out, and know it is a perfect reminder as to what can do achieved when there is a will to make things happen.
Madison’s solution was to go for broke. The Madison Water Utility dismissed the easy fix recommended by the EPA regulations, which entailed treating pipes with phosphates to lower corrosion that releases trace metals. The company instead ripped out every lead line it owned. Then it made some 5,500 of its customers do the same.
Dozens of streets were torn up for a decade of digging and copper-pipe replacement at a cost of nearly $20 million. It was noisy, messy and disruptive, but successful.
So how, then, can this type of success be transferred to other places in our country? What will it take to show the nation that paying for infrastructure upgrades is of prime importance?
“A relatively high willingness to pay for quality drinking water” among Madison residents made the lead-removal project easier for officials to sell, said Greg Harrington, a University of Wisconsin engineering professor who served on the Madison water utility’s board during the project.
The answer lies in members of Congress stepping back from the partisan divide, the tribal rhetoric, and instead think solely of the average constituent family back in their state or district. Congress needs to speak with resolve and understanding about the rebuilding that is required. They need to become educators about the ways to improve bridges, drinking water, and ports.
The powerful hand of government along with the means to tax and fund such projects is what is required so to impact a host of needs people are facing. The average person is not able to effect such change.
A Madison mayor well understood that fact.
Now, Congress must act in like fashion.