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Infrastructure Week: A time to celebrate the value of basic infrastructure and public works

By Paul Roberts and Jim Restucci

When was the last time you heard about a friend or family member getting cholera? Cholera – a bacterial infection contracted from untreated water sources – used to be a common occurrence.

Today, it’s natural to turn on your faucet and expect clean, safe drinking water that freely flows. It’s also natural to flush the toilet and not think too much about where your waste travels. We simply take these things for granted.

But let’s stop and celebrate the value of the basic infrastructure that keeps our society running, as well as the people who build and operate it. This week is Infrastructure Week and Public Works Week – a week set aside to focus on education and advocacy efforts aimed at supporting these critical assets.

While we might not think about it very often, as ordinary community members, we benefit from these investments every day. A strong infrastructure is also the foundation for our economy. Without it, we simply cannot grow and our cities won’t thrive. Additionally, for every one dollar invested in infrastructure, nearly two dollars in output is created – putting our friends and neighbors to work.

As a service provider, your city and public works professionals ensure these systems are running properly so you don’t have to. This requires significant investment and planning, especially as our population continues to grow.

However, our infrastructure systems in many of Washington’s cities and towns, our state, and country are aging. Historically, the state and federal governments have partnered with local governments to ensure that all residents have access to basic services like safe drinking water and sanitary sewer systems. But with recent budget problems at the state and federal level, local governments are largely on their own to maintain and construct infrastructure systems to support the state’s population and economic activity.

The state and local governments used to work together to solve challenges. Created in the 1980s, the Public Works Trust Fund was designed to help all communities access affordable infrastructure through low-interest loans. It allowed utilities to maintain essential service levels and expand before there was a crisis.

This Public Works Trust Fund received revenues from modest taxes on the beneficiaries of infrastructure – utility customers and real estate transactions – and supplemented by the repayments of earlier loans. Ultimately it evolved into a national model that became self-sustaining.

Starting in 2013, the state began systematically dismantling this program. Over a billion dollars that would have gone to basic infrastructure investment has been diverted for other uses.

Absent this program, particularly smaller cities and towns will be required to hire bond counsel and convince Wall Street investors that they are acceptable risks for investments. It’s estimated that these jurisdictions would pay up to 40 percent more for their projects for the privilege. Residents would see higher rates, impacting those least able to afford increases the most.

We will not see the results of these state actions immediately. We may not even see them in the next several years. But little-by-little, the strain on local government will become evident as we struggle to maintain and replace aging systems. The American Society of Civil Engineers reports that there is nearly $10 billion needed for safe drinking water in Washington State alone over the next 20 years. Additionally, more than $5 billion wastewater infrastructure is needed over the same time period.

One thing is clear…the need is great. This is not the time to abandon successful partnerships and leave cities and their community members to fend for themselves. The time for the state and federal governments to partner with their local counterparts is now.

Paul Roberts is the President of the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and City of Everett Councilmember. Jim Restucci is Vice President of AWC and City of Sunnyside Mayor.

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Contact:
Alicia Seegers Martinelli
Communications Director
aliciam@awcnet.org
(360) 753-4137

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