One unifying factor for both the general public, but also for many of us who vote for, manage and design infrastructure projects, is that water and wastewater projects can feel as though they are out of sight, out of mind. Buried pipe systems are easy to forget – until they break.
It’s another axiom that pipes will break – nothing is infallible. But project managers, municipal engineers and utility professionals use their extensive knowledge of both water systems and materials to recommend to decision-makers the best pipes for their community. The better suited the pipe is to its environment and the stronger the construction material, the better chance the pipe has of withstanding natural and other stressors.
All too often, in seeking to keep things affordable for their customer base, municipal leaders get hung up on the initial costs of an infrastructure project instead of looking at the long-term price tag. These projects are expensive, but the last thing decision makers need is to be hamstrung by a view that requires them to only consider upfront costs when awarding contracts. If you serve long enough in the public realm, you’ll learn that the hard way.
When I was mayor of Vernonia, Oregon, we twice experienced such significant flooding that we were forced to replace parts of a costly sewer system. In 1996, there were major landslides as a result of a catastrophic flood. You could see metal pipes that normally ran underground hanging in the air, fully intact. The plastic pipes that were part of the system often broke.
That experience opened my eyes to the inherent dangers of being so cost-conscious that you wind up in a more precarious position in the future. At that time, I would have not thought twice about considering only the lowest bid in determining the proper material for infrastructure projects. Even in the mid-1990s, municipal officials were concerned about tightening budgets and using our resources the best we could. Often our engineers would advise us that it’s smart to spend more money up front if it will save costs down the line. While that may give ratepayers some initial hesitation, kicking the can down the road can frequently do more harm to a community and its ratepayers’ pocketbooks.
As an example on a larger scale, let’s look at Portland. There are more than 2,500 miles of sewer pipes running underneath the city and more than one-third of those pipes are at least 80 years old. Officials there know they have to replace those pipes and modernize the system, but what’s the best approach? Shifting dollars from other priorities? Scaling back projects? Or proposing rate increases?
Part of the solution lies in state and federal partnerships in which local officials can apply for grants to help pay for infrastructure projects. But care must be taken to read the fine print. Those grants should not bind local officials to accepting the lowest bid, regardless of the materials proposed by the companies. It is critical that local officials maintain the flexibility to award bids to the materials that will best meet the community’s long-term needs. We know that in my part of the country, heavy rains can produce major landslides and once the ground starts shifting, it can to be disastrous. The best we can do is to ensure the underground water systems can withstand the pressure. The stronger, more resilient the pipe, the more likely it will be a functional system that we can rely on.
I think what surprises me the most about municipal projects is the unfortunate short-sightedness that doesn’t take into account the long-term operations and maintenance costs – those are the real costs for water systems and their ratepayers. Since these are costs borne by the local community, it is essential that material selection decisions are made at the local level. Think of it this way: if you’re in the market for a vehicle that you need to last 10 years, you’re better off investing in a more expensive car with a better maintenance record than a cheaper car that’s going to drain your wallet over the years of taking it into the shop. Your initial outlay will be higher, but over the lifetime of the car, it will more than balance out.
The most important thing is to be able to work with our engineers who make project and material recommendations based on their knowledge of the local conditions and our experience with various materials. I relied heavily on that kind of advice when I was voting on municipal contracts. It would be a catastrophe if today’s leaders can’t rely on the wisdom of engineers and other professionals and are forced to accept the lowest bids without any consideration of the long-term costs or local needs. The worst thing would be having to pay for water systems twice because the first one failed.