Op-Ed: Newark Mayor on Utilities Infrastructure


Ras J. Baraka

We recently saw a national call to action to invest in our country’s infrastructure. As the financial devastation of COVID-19 exposed long-standing and dangerous gaps in our public service infrastructure, billions in lost revenue for local governments are hampering the ability to maintain services, let alone massive improvements. infrastructure that is needed.

Cities need solid investments like President Joe Biden’s US Jobs Plan. This $ 2 trillion infrastructure package is focused on strengthening America’s post-pandemic economy and will get people back to work and repair our public service infrastructure for the next generation of Americans.

As a nation, we do not save dollars or lives by reducing our infrastructure and this is especially true of our utilities which provide essential services to residents. A 2016 study from Tufts University estimated that just three water-borne pathogens that thrive in old pipes send nearly 80,000 elderly Americans to hospitals each year, at a cost of $ 2 billion. , much of which is paid for by Medicare. Additionally, a 2008 Kansas State University study estimated that freshwater contamination costs US $ 5.12 billion in 2020 dollars.

Many of our cities’ public water pipes were installed in the mid-20th century with an estimated lifespan of 75 to 100 years. We are rapidly approaching those expiration dates with little progress to show. A 2017 assessment by the American Society of Civil Engineers determined that it would take approximately 200 years to update our water system, as utilities “were performing an average of 0.5% pipe replacement per. year”. The American Water Works Association also estimates that more than 6 million existing pipes are lead service lines that connect the municipal water supply to homes. To immediately address this issue in Newark, we were almost done replacing all of our city’s major service lines, which was not an easy or inexpensive endeavor.

Our city was fortunate to have benefited from the smart and innovative collaboration, funding and investment in partnership with the State of New Jersey and the County of Essex that made it possible to financially commit to removing all major service lines in the city as well as in some of the surrounding municipalities that we serve. Thanks to the cooperation of our residents, even during the pandemic, we are finalizing a project that we expected to complete in eight years, in less than 30 months. However, many cities are not so well positioned and do not have access to the resources to repair their infrastructure, especially now.

The economic impacts of COVID-19 have disrupted the normal flow of revenue to utilities from all directions. Many individual households are unable to pay their bills due to unemployment. Many cities, including Newark, which seek to protect residents from further financial hardship, have put in place closing moratoria for customers unable to pay due to job loss. In addition, with the closure of many factories and office buildings, utilities cannot rely on the revenues of their largest and usually most regular customers. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) estimated that drinking water utilities could potentially suffer losses of $ 12.5 billion from COVID-19.

These challenges make it even more difficult for utilities to maintain and improve their infrastructure. Even before the pandemic, public water systems in the United States faced a $ 30 billion revenue shortfall and the cost continues to rise.

Biden’s plan would solve long-term and short-term funding issues. Funding for advanced utility line replacement projects, for example, would allow cities in the United States to remove all their lead pipes once and for all – just like Newark. His plan would further eliminate all lead pipes and service lines in our drinking water systems, improving the health of children and communities of color across our country and positively impacting environmental justice. This is just one of the ways this investment would allow utilities to resume larger capital improvements, which have been delayed by deficits and a lack of long-promised federal funds.

In addition to the infrastructural benefits, Biden’s plan would functionally begin a national public works program. Cities and towns across the country are reportedly hiring many unemployed Americans to work on wholesale water and other infrastructure upgrades. On its own, Newark’s major utility line replacement program has created opportunities for residents to secure well-paying jobs. Besides a guaranteed basic income, a national public works program is the best option to ensure the financial security of millions of households.

Infrastructure, but especially public services, is the invisible backbone of everyday life and is under extreme stress. Tackling this problem is not only necessary to maintain the health and safety of our people and our economy, but also an opportunity to meet the financial needs of our ailing country while ensuring quality infrastructure and fair justice. for the next generation. If not now when?

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