By Chuck Hersey, Free Press guest writer & PSC senior policy fellow
Among the lessons from the Flint water crisis, one of the most important is to never again let our infrastructure experience the kind of underinvestment we’ve allowed it to in the last few decades.
Underinvestment in our roads and our water and sewer infrastructure does not save money. Instead, it results in much higher costs.
For years, reputable experts have told us this. Take our roads. The money needed to fix our roads has doubled in just a few years, largely because many roads have been neglected for so long that they must now be replaced, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
Repeated warnings did not result in action, and now we’re left with the mess.
Moving forward, we need to think differently about our approach to preserving and improving our water and sewer systems and recognize them for what they really are: an extraordinary asset that benefits individuals, businesses and communities every single day.
Whether we are talking about water service, roads, bridges or schools, infrastructure directly affects the quality of our lives and the health of our economy. Strong economies are made possible by reliable, quality infrastructure. And reliable quality infrastructure is enabled by strong economies.
If we can begin to view our water and sewer infrastructure as an asset to protect instead of a cost to be minimized, then we can manage and invest in it accordingly. We will care for it and invest in protecting it like our cars and our homes. Even if we can’t see the inside of the engine, we know that changing the oil makes it perform better and last longer.
So where do we go from here?
There are many legitimate perspectives on how best to move forward. But these varying perspectives and the inherent complexities of solving a large, multifaceted problem should not blind us to the common denominators of any meaningful, long-term solution. They come from our past experience, successes and failures.
• When estimating the amount needed for infrastructure projects, the math must always include the cost of four things: capital, operation, maintenance and replacement. Too often one or more of these items are not fully funded, particularly replacement. These represent the true short and long term costs of infrastructure service. Any weak link in this chain seriously compromises quality.
• While federal and state assistance can be helpful for local utility budgets, it’s unpredictable. We can no longer rely on such subsidies as part of long-term budgetary planning. That approach just isn’t sustainable.
• We must earn and maintain the public trust by being more transparent regarding how charges are determined and how they are allocated to customers. Transparency builds trust and can help us avoid artificially minimize charges for fear of public backlash.
• We need to enforce the spirit of the law (not just the letter of law) when determining what is in our own best interest. The first question asked when beginning a new project should always be, “What is best for our own quality of life?”
• Decisions about what, where and when to invest have to be made in a more systematic way. Simply put, we cannot meet the public’s expectation regarding cost-effectiveness and fairness unless we do a better job of making sure the actions of various agencies and infrastructure service providers have the same end goal. That means replacing turf-mongering with a commitment to true partnerships.
Two tremendous opportunities lay before us. One is Gov. Rick Snyder’s newly formed 21st Century Infrastructure Commission. The other is the newly formed regional Great Lakes Water Authority. Both provide an opportunity for us to use the common denominators mentioned above to guide our decision making.
Let’s raise our voices and ask the decision makers tasked with addressing infrastructure challenges to work together toward the ultimate bottom line — strong infrastructure creates success for all by building quality of life. We should expect no less.
Chuck Hersey is a senior fellow at Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants and the former leader of environmental affairs for SEMCOG.