In the wake of the severe water-contamination crisis that put Flint, Michigan's 100,000 residents at risk of lead poisoning, fixing the nation's decaying underground water infrastructure is a task that can no longer be ignored. Addressing the problem will require a serious discussion about how to spend water systems' limited resources so as to make the best use of the innovative products and technologies that are available today.
In his April 4 article in the Washington Examiner, "Cheap Pipes Will Cost Communities Over Time," Darren Bearson paints an inaccurate picture of efforts underway in state legislatures aimed at removing barriers to competitive bidding in underground water infrastructure projects. For example, the claim that bills pending in Ohio and Michigan would "force municipalities to solely consider cost on the front-end of the decision making…" is false.
They do nothing of the sort. Legislation introduced in Michigan, for example, simply requires that any public drinking water system receiving state funding not adopt or adhere to any existing ordinances that restrict or prohibit the use of pipe or pipe materials that meet the engineering specification for the project. It is then up to the project engineer to select the pipe and pipe material that best meet local needs. Thus, municipalities are not "forced" solely to consider cost, either at the beginning or at the end of the decision-making process.
Procurement specifications that date from the age of rotary phones and black and white TVs – if not earlier – cannot be relied upon to take advantage of the dramatic advancements in technology offered by modern piping materials. All PVC pipes serving American water systems are made domestically by one of the 100 PVC manufacturers in the U.S. And all piping used in water systems in the United States, including PVC pipe, must meet the strict specifications of the American Society for Testing and Materials and the American Water Works Association.
Open competition for piping in water infrastructure projects expands the choices from which engineers can choose and lowers costs. That's what's driving procurement-reform legislation in Michigan and Ohio, as well as similar efforts in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Arkansas.
Showing that lessons have been learned from the Flint disaster, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder ordered a comprehensive review of state and local water infrastructure practices. His 21st Century Infrastructure Report recommended that Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, municipalities, and utilities "put in place a process to periodically review and update new technologies, procurement manuals or standard operating practices to allow for open competition for technology and materials meeting relevant standards."
Costs, of course, are a huge concern for cash-strapped municipalities, and upgrading the nation's water, sewer, and storm-water systems at an affordable price to ratepayers and taxpayers strengthens the argument for open competition. A recent report by Massachusetts-based BCC Research compared the cost of pipe replacement in four Michigan cities: two with open competition (Monroe and Livonia) and two without (Port Huron and Grand Rapids). The study found that communities with open competition enjoyed lower pipe costs, on average, for water main installation or replacement projects, reaching average savings of 27 percent for 8-inch pipe and 34 percent for 12-inch pipe, or up to $114,000 per mile of pipe, compared with municipalities with closed competition. Significantly, the researchers found that competitive bidding lowers the cost of both PVC and ductile-iron pipes.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently released its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, which gave the nation's drinking water infrastructure a grade of "D." This was not a vote of confidence in the status quo.
Small wonder that a 2013 U.S. Conference of Mayors report on underground water infrastructure concluded, "Closed procurement processes lead to unnecessary costs, and may diminish the public's confidence in a local government's ability to provide cost-effective services."
So what's wrong with a little competition?
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is the author of "Fixing America's Crumbling Underground Water Infrastructure," published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
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