C+S September 2021 Vol. 7 Issue 9 (web)

Lifting a Community, a holistic approach By David Totman

Congress and the Administration should be commended for the Senate-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—a $1.2 trillion dollar proposal to fund transportation, energy, water and wastewater infrastructure, and many other critical capital projects and community initiatives. Many times, the merit of legislation is measured by the individual programs and the level of funding for each unique effort. However, if we take a step back and evaluate the entirety of the IIJA as one policy initiative, a story of greater impact comes into focus—if we take a new approach to execution. While a path to passage into law remains a bit murky, policymakers and the public should begin to consider how best to implement the funding for this program because, ultimately, what we have before us may be one of the largest community-oriented construction and public health projects of our time. Managing assets for reliable services My education, my career, and my experience as a public servant at one of the largest municipally owned, four-service utilities in the United States always placed “the public welfare above all other con - siderations,” as stated in the engineers’ credo; this was our most sacred promise to the public for whom we served. As former asset manager and steward of a nearly $1 billion annual operating plan, my team supported the entire lifecycle of almost all the services provided to our end users—our customers. This included everything from infrastructure planning through construction to op - erations and maintenance of electric, gas, water, and wastewater infra - structure, and more including our own telecommunications. Our single goal was to provide reliable services to all communities as efficiently and equitably as possible regardless of status—economic and social. But beyond our service area, equitable access was often a big question mark. Older, disadvantaged communities were often left behind—facing illness due to lead water pipes, and now little to no internet access due to a lack of broadband, or a lack of transportation to reliably access medical appointments, school, or jobs. And, to be fair, these are most often challenging in communities of color and poverty and unless we change the status quo will continue to rein. The Senate-passed infrastructure plan proposes to tackle each of these challenges more traditionally. Water and wastewater infrastructure investments, transportation, broadband? Generally different programs and pots of funding. But there could be a better way—one by which we serve the communities most in need and break down multiple barriers to better health and economic opportunities at one time.

A holistic approach: ‘rip the road up once’ The most logical and efficient approach—and the one with the like - lihood of greatest impact—is to use a holistic Right of Way (ROW) methodology. This approach would allocate funding in a prioritized, highest risk community program acknowledging a condition and risk assessment of all utilities within a given neighborhood addressing mul - tiple stakeholders, not just water interests, or just telecom interests, or other one-off utility improvements. For example, while replacing lead water service lines feeding water to residents, the opportunity should be leveraged for complete ROW infrastructure improvements. In this scenario, communities identified as those with the greatest needs would propose full ROW infrastruc - ture improvement plans including water and wastewater, broadband, energy, transportation improvements, etc.—and other capital programs covered by the IIJA passed by the Senate. So, in essence, bring the community together, plan and collaborate as one, and create the great - est impact at the best price with the least disruption. An analysis including technical and financial reasons may waive in - dividual utility stakeholders from leveraging this opportunity at the time, yet due diligence will be achieved in providing modern public infrastructure to protect public health as is the civil engineering credo. Technology’s role in reinventing communities Taking a new approach won’t be easy, and executing in collaboration with varying interests often at odds with one another is certainly a hill to climb. However, if we hope to improve our nation’s competitiveness and lift communities from poverty, new ways of incentivizing change must be considered. One of the greatest challenges for any utility is understanding what as - sets they have, where they are located, and in what condition they are in. Here lies an important underlying educational opportunity about asset management. Why do utilities not have accurate service line records? There are many factors, including availability of up-to-date records and maps, which would have largely been paper. However, it can be far more complicated than just proper records from the public ROW.



september 2021

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