Construction industry says it’s looking up? What does that say for utilities?


The most recent discussions in trade journals, on-line and within the industry is that construction starts have begun to trend upward, a good sign that the economy is moving forward.  Since 2008 when the market crashed just after the election as a result of 2005/2006 packaged loan deals (read The Big Short by Michael Lewis if you really want to understand what happened, but be prepared to be irritated that no one has yet to go to jail), the stock market has crept steadily upward.  The problem is that the returns on investments have not trickled down to the majority of Americans except in low wage jobs (no wonder people can’t pay their mortgage and the IRS collects no income taxes from so many people).  But the tide does seem to be turning according to the construction journals.  In part we can thank low interest rates, but more perhaps more importantly it seems that much of the excess housing and commercial space may be decreasing so investors and owners that are looking to a spurt in economic growth in the coming years.  We see rising house prices in hard hit areas like south Florida.  With luck that will translate to jobs (maybe even decent wage jobs), increased tax revenues for local governments, and increased water revenues form of new or redeveloped users.  While the trend may not hold everywhere, the fact that the construction industry is talking about increases in new starts in the coming year, is a clear sign of things to come.  But are we ready?  That’s the big question.

Down here where I live, the 2007-2009 period was one where utilities ere struggling to find water supplies, with many investing in expensive alternative supplies.  Then reality struck and the 2020 demands are more like 2030 or 2040 demands.  The impetus for investment went away (it did not help that the burden was on the current ratepayers).  Those who invested in the 2008-2011 period got the benefit of much lower construction costs (typically about 70% of 2007 costs), but many sat on the sidelines as a result of political demands not to increase rates on current residents, resulting in lots of deferred maintenance.  While few utilities invested on growth related infrastructure, how many invested on replacement and rehabilitation at the lower costs?  Unfortunately, catching up on the backlog did not happen for many of us, which is why ASCE’s annual report card for water and sewer infrastructure continues to show very low grades (D- in 2009 for water and wastewater, a grade that has not improved).  As a result the legacy of the 2008 recession is that an opportunity to improve the condition of our infrastructure while creating local jobs was lost.  Now we will play catch up at higher prices, and higher interest rates (0.25% since June).

So where is the failure?  We complain about leadership at the federal level, but leadership starts at home (to use a cliché).  Local officials were not persuaded by utility personnel to invest in their future.  Aren’t these the same officials that often move to state and then the federal level?  Our failure to persuade them is an indication that our marketing approach to built consensus is not working.  Our ability to coalesce the community to improve itself is lacking, which readily translate to elected officials.  We can cast the blame upon them, but it starts much earlier than the time they make decisions.  In difficult economic times, we need a better approach to selling our product and the need to maintain the systems that deliver our product.  We need our customer to demand the improvements to protect their health.  People just don’t understand the link.  Water is there, so all is good.  When I flush it goes away.  No problem.  But what separates the US form the Third World is our infrastructure, especially our water and power infrastructure.  Maintaining our place in the world requires that we continuously upgrade and maintain this infrastructure.  That means planning ahead, building reserves, and taking advantage of economic conditions favorable to getting the most for our money.  How many of us missed this last opportunity?  We should be looking in the mirror and asking why…

 

PS  Today would be my Dad’s 90th.  We miss you!!

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