Kickstart the Economy With Infrastructure Projects Done Right

No one ever knows how history will judge them. But I’m fairly certain that in 100 years, historians will look back at this year and sympathize with the gut-punch we took, first over the health and safety of our friends, family, and neighbors; and second, at the abrupt economic spiral that we fell into.

In May, I had the opportunity to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis to talk about the $30 million shortfall faced by my city of Columbia, S.C. Nationwide, water and wastewater utilities are expected to face an economic impact of more than $30 billion from the crisis. I know that we made the right decision to shut down much of our economy to slow the spread of this virus – the cost of public health must be a price we’re willing to pay – but we face a difficult climb back to prosperity. I told the members on that subcommittee that Congress must act decisively to provide the necessary funding and support for our nation’s cities as we are the ones who are on the front lines of continuing to provide needed services to our neighbors during these trying times.

We’re all asking the federal government to help us either with additional money or increased flexibility in how we spend those dollars. We also should be asking for lawmakers – both federal and state – not to impose additional mandates that will make it harder for cities to economically recover. That’s why I’m so pleased the U.S. Conference of Mayors recently passed a resolution to support local control of water infrastructure projects. The last thing we need are heavy-handed, top-down mandates that will make it harder for us at a local level to do what we know needs to be done to serve our constituents.

Infrastructure projects will be one of the best ways that we can kickstart our economy. And as the headlines during this pandemic have made clear, projects that improve aging water infrastructure to better ensure clean, safe drinking water must be among our top priorities. According to a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, deteriorating infrastructure and service disruptions increase costs to families, many of whom were struggling even before the pandemic. Those costs could reach as high as $14 billion by 2039 unless we take action now by investing in water infrastructure projects. The report notes that such an investment would protect almost 636,000 jobs and protect $2.9 trillion in gross domestic product.

But we won’t see those job and economic growth protections realized unless projects are done right. And to do that, we need to trust the local people most capable of making the best decisions: the engineers and utility professionals working with their local officials whose jobs it is to design those projects. That’s what the resolution from the Conference of Mayors makes clear.

One of the most important aspects of drinking water projects is understanding which pipes to use. As the resolution states, “infrastructure materials all have different service lives, durability, reliability, economic, health and safety characteristics, and engineers and communities need to retain local control to select infrastructure materials based on factors important to the local community.”

This is the heart of the matter. In cities, counties and other municipalities around the country, there are dedicated professionals who have the knowledge, training and experience to know how best to deliver clean drinking water to meet the needs of their communities. They exercise their expertise when they create local community-wide specifications for their water systems. We can show our trust in them by deferring to their pipe specifications — instead of restricting their choice through heavy handed state and federal mandates.

Already, there have been too many efforts in Washington, D.C., and state capitals across the country to pass legislation that would give preference to certain types of pipes over others. In my home state of South Carolina and elsewhere, we have witnessed multiple attempts by special interests to promote their industry under the guise of promoting so-called “open competition” or “innovative materials.” Despite their clever branding, these efforts do nothing to promote competition or innovation. All they do is restrict local control and make it harder for the professionals to do their jobs. Thankfully, all of these material preference efforts have failed, including in South Carolina.

As a mayor, I surround myself with smart people who give me their best advice based on their knowledge, training and experience. I trust them, just as we should trust the professional engineers and utility employees to make decisions about drinking water pipes based on science, not politics. As we all work together to emerge from this pandemic and return the economy to where it was before the shutdowns, we should continue to call upon these experts who know what is best for their local community.

The Hon. Stephen Benjamin is the Mayor of Columbia, SC. He served as President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors from 2018 to 2019.

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