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Road Repair


Many communities that have issue with older infrastructure may suffer from loss of economic opportunities (Flint, Detroit, Cleveland).  This compounds the problem with local capacity for maintenance and report of infrastructure. Many of these issues result from the lack of funding due to the unwillingness of local officials to raise water rates and address hidden infrastructure. Others may feel limited due to the loss of economic activity – Rust Belt cities and the northeast are older; inner cities may be more impacted.  Different areas of the country will have different needs and maybe different magnitudes of need.  Rural communities may not have funding to replace infrastructure.  The first community that abandoned their system was rural.  Newer communities with newer pipe will have far less needs today, but few are taking steps to avoid the infrastructure pitfalls that have hit older communities.  Ultimately these conditions make for a huge backlog of deferred infrastructure investments, mostly in pipe and service lines beneath roads. The only good news is that by correcting the piping, much of the roadway base issues could also be resolved concurrently.

A concurrent problem in the communities hardest hit with infrastructure issues is often that there is pool of skilled labor, but said labor may not be skilled in areas to address their own infrastructure problems.  Likewise youths may be challenged to find work local. The solution to both issues may be similar to that posed by the CETA programs in the late 1970s. In those programs local and state governments were given funds to hire staff to be trained for certain jobs, with the intention that these trained workers would become part of a permanent, expanded workforce.  A similar solution today as a part of an infrastructure bill could be to provide local and state governments for funding for personnel to be trained to perform such work.  The workers could receive training on safety, OSHA issues, and equipment from a local community college or university that would be paid for by the infrastructure bill.  These same people would then be hired by local governments to perform rehabilitation and replacement work, fully funded initially by the federal government s but with an anticipated transition period where by 10 years out, the workforce could be demonstrated to have been expended as a result of the program.

Note that hiring by local governments is a key.  Private sector hiring tends to be job specific and the jobs disappear when the activity moves or ceases.  Hence finding the private sector likely leads only to a temporary increase in labor development.  Local government hiring would more likely increase permanent employment.  The local agencies would need to be given an incentive to encourage this since far too many elected officials see government employment as a negative thing.  This is partly why we have the infrastructure quagmire today.  That attitude needs to change.

The private sector will want their share, and privatization is a confounding issue because people get laid off through privatization and indications are that the middle class gets hurt by privatization (lower wages for the same job).  But the public sector does not manufacture pipe, equipment like backhoes and rollers and other materials would be paid to private vendors in accordance with local and state bid rules.  That would move monies for capital to private vendors.  For large projects the work rules could be applied to contractors much like the ARRA funding requirements – shovel ready and US materials and newly trained staff making up a portion of the work force.  That would meet the tenets of local jobs, fixing local problems with federal dollars for a period of time, perhaps as a mix of grants and low interest loans.

At least 20 years of infrastructure needs exist.  Hence the longer term program could be sustained.  A funding mechanism is in place via state revolving fund programs for a portion of the effort, much like the water, sewer and stormwater funds were channeled through the SRF programs under the ARRA program.  WIFIA and other programs could be used as a dispersal agent, so new bureaucracies would not need to be created.   A prior pattern for implementation is in place and would just need to be “dusted” off an updated.  Bi-partisan support enacted these program in the past and it would seem this would be good for all.

The potential for concern would be raised by private utilities (power, cable, telephone and private water and sewer utilities) which would be effectively shut out of funding, but they are private entities and they have the ability to raise funds on the private equity market.  Capitalism will work well for these organizations, but it does not for most local public works infrastructure systems.  That is why they are public, not private.  Some local governments would resist the requirement to expand the workforce – but that is their choice – a requirement to participate is not implied just as it is not with SRF funds.  Local business communities would likely drive the effort to be involved.

So now we wait and see if anything happens……

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I thought this was pretty interesting.  We drive on highways all the time.  Many are asphalt surfaces, but there are a lot of concrete roads (many with asphalt on top of them) that provide service today.  We also have a lot of utilities under these roads.  Concrete is a stronger surface, but also hides leaks and breaks, making the job harder to locate and fix repairs.  And it spalls in northern environments where salt is used on the roads.  Utility folks don’t think about roads a lot, but they are integral to our service.  1909 was the first…

https://michpics.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/april-20-1909-the-worlds-first-mile-of-concrete-highway/


Most states were doing pretty well before the 2008 recession hit, but that ended in 2009. Most states had to make extremely difficult cuts or raise taxes, which was politically unacceptable. Of course invested pension systems received a lot of attention as their value dropped and long term sufficiency deteriorated, which was fodder for many changes in pensions, albeit not how they were invested. The good news is a lot of them came back in the ensuing 5 years, but 2015 may be different. A number of states have reported low earnings in 2015 and whether this may be the start of another recession. The U.S. economy has averaged a recession every six years since WWII and it has been almost seven years since the last contraction. With China devaluing their currency, this may upset the economic engine. At present there are analysts on Wall Street who suggest that some stocks may be overvalued, just like in 1999. If so, that does not bode well states like Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, Alaska and Pennsylvania that are dealing with significant imbalances between their expenses and incomes. Alaska has most of its revenue tied to oil, so when oil prices go down (good for most of us), it is a huge problem for Alaska that gives $2200 to every citizen in the state. An economic downturn portends poorly for the no tax, pro-business experiment in Kansas that has been unsuccessful in attracting the large influx of new businesses, or even expansion of current ones. California and next door Missouri, often chided by Kansas lawmakers as how not to do business, outperform Kansas.

Ultimately the issue that lawmakers must face at the state and as a result the local level is that tax rates may not be high enough to generate the funds needed to operate government and protect the states against economic down turns. There is a “sweet spot” where funds are enough, to deal with short and long term needs, but starving government come back to haunt these same policy makers when the economy dips.   It would be a difficult day for a state to declare bankruptcy because lawmakers refuse to raise taxes and fees.


We are all cognizant of the low grades on infrastructure given annually by ASCE and periodically by USEPA.  We spend about 1.8% of our GNP on infrastructure.  We used to spend twice that much and it is likely that we need to spend upwards of 2.4% to stay even.  Much or our infrastructure is “forgotten” because it is buried.  American Water Works Association published a book to highlight his problem – Buried No Longer.  But is it helping.  In a recent Roads & Bridges article, they noted that the bridge system continues to age faster than the repair rate.  The states with more than 15% deficient bridges are mostly Great Plains states, and the northeast.  The latter is no surprise because the infrastructure is generally much older in the northeast.  What was also interesting was that in a recent American City and County magazine, many of the states that have bridge issues, also have below average trust among the public.  And most of the areas with the bridge issues are rural states, like North Dakota and West Virginia.  This harkens back to a prior couple blogs when it was noted that poorer, less educated people tend to live rural lifestyles, and lobby for less taxes, yet expect government to be there to resolve crises.  Interesting….

 


I read a recent article in Roads and Bridges on the reconstruction of the roadways to Estes Park.  An excellent effort by state officials and private contractors to rebuild over 20 miles of roads that were wiped away in mid-September when unprecedented rainstorms cut Estes Park off from the front range.  I actually had reservations in Estes Park as part of a plan to go hiking at Lawn Lake, among others.  Lawn Lake was one the harder hit areas in the park.  Went to Leadville.  If you have never been, go.  The early money in Colorado came out of Leadville – silver was the money-maker.   I did a 12 mile hike thought the mining district as it snowed – note it is the 2 mile high City.  Great hike in the am – the photos were fantastic as well.  

But the point is that people expect government to solve problems like the roadways in Colorado.  They expect we will solve water, sewer and storm water problems.  We have done a great job of it because people take these services for granted.  What we don’t want is to have a catastrophic failure, natural or otherwise.. ..

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