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Op-Ed: Investment (and Planning) Urgently Needed for Water Infrastructure

Public works contractors see the problems first-hand — and the potential costs if New Jersey doesn’t get to grips with one of its most vital systems

Joe Walsh
Joe Walsh

Public works contractors play an essential role in maintaining, and too often repairing, the unseen structures that make modern life possible. In this role, we work directly with one of our most neglected, yet most vital systems: water infrastructure.

We fix water main and sewer lines that break routinely and disrupt the everyday life of residents and businesses, including ours. We see first-hand how these events shut down roads and transit, shutter business operations, and create public health hazards. In older communities, we are increasingly working with municipalities and utilities to replace lead service lines and other insufficient system components that turn otherwise clean, treated drinking water into a risk to our children’s health and development. We track potential projects and stand by as bureaucratic delays stymie viable projects sponsored by responsible water system operators.

Every day, my crews work to repair and replace the underground network of pipes meant to ensure the quality of our drinking water and the effectiveness of sewer systems. The stories and images brought back from the field are alarming to me and they should be to you, no matter where you live in New Jersey.

It is common for my crews to be working on 100-plus-year-old pipes — sometimes made of wood — that are held together by only earth and that crumble when surrounding soil is removed. What is most alarming is the lack of a plan by those responsible for this issue at the federal and state level. Despite the constant news coverage on the severity of the issue and a strong push from a range of advocacy groups, we have no long-term strategy and are flying by the seat of our pants in hopes that something big doesn’t break at the wrong time. This is inexcusable.

The Utility and Transportation Contractors Association (UTCA) is thankful for the state’s Infrastructure Bank and the programs it offers to support water systems as they work to upgrade and maintain our aging infrastructure. Funding for these programs (especially for critical drinking water projects) is oversubscribed, and recently the Department of Environmental Protection proposed deprioritizing important projects that it just doesn’t have the funding to support.

As the Board President of the UTCA I can assure you that our industry is not interested in throwing stones. We have invested time and energy in a proactive set of actions that avoid stopgap measures and offer the federal and state government the best path forward toward comprehensive reform.

Funding in the state budget

To overcome the most immediate challenges, it is critical for the governor and the Legislature to add into the state budget enough funding to meet the immediate needs of communities that have invested time and money into proposing projects with the expectation that the Infrastructure Bank would support them.

UTCA’s broader solutions can be viewed on our website.

The operative term here is “investment,” and the benefits extend far beyond the construction industry. Investment in water infrastructure at the local, state, and federal level will foster healthier communities and a stronger economy, will spur new job growth and will increase our economic competitiveness as a state. According to a recently published study from American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a $1 billion increase in annual investment in water infrastructure over the next 20 years will result in broader economic gains:

  • Sales and output by businesses in all sectors is expected to increase by $2.1B. These investments will contribute $1.2B to the state’s GDP;

  • 13,787 jobs would be supported or created throughout the state economy;

  • These workers will earn a cumulative $739.5 million and will generate $143.1 million in additional state and local tax revenues, including $62.8 million in state and federal payroll taxes, $61.1 million in state income tax and corporate business tax revenues, and $19.3 million in state and local sales and use tax revenues.

Funding is, of course, part of the solution but by no means the only part. We must avoid the trap of being either dissuaded by or led by the cumulative price tag of the work. Increasing capital investment is an unavoidable aspect of fixing this problem; but without a structured process to ensure accountability and fairness, new money will do little to address the root cause.

A coordinated state effort must include several components: longer-term statewide capital planning; increased requirements and oversight of utility-lead asset management planning; a reduction in project review times and costs; and a concerted focus from the DEP and project sponsors to accelerate significant projects to completion.

When water systems don’t properly maintain their underground assets, all of us pay the price either through wasted rate dollars literally leaking treated water through pipes, or with something even greater — our health. The time for talk is over. Now we must get to work.

Joe Walsh is president of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of NJ.

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