How can we fix our nation’s infrastructure problems? Put competition to work

Virtually every day in the U.S., we are flooded with more and more reports about growing problems with the nation’s crumbling water infrastructure. While the problem was first brought to the public’s awareness in Flint, water systems are failing in countless other cities, from Cleveland, to New Jersey, to Massachusetts.

Now, we are seeing more troubling signs of the sheer magnitude of the impact on the health and safety of people across the country. As it turns out, the problem extends far beyond the faucets in our homes.

Sinkholes a troubling side effect

In the beginning of May, the Associated Press published a story, “Huge sinkholes are now appearing in the wrong place,” that detailed how broken water mains and other water infrastructure are causing the formation of sinkholes.

The article puts an exclamation mark on a growing problem by highlighting the troubling fact that “from early December through April… 39 significant sinkholes related to failing infrastructure – a rate of about one every four days – struck across the country.”

These sinkholes are forming across the country – for example, in Los Angeles, in Sioux City, Iowa, and in Hoboken, New Jersey. As recent reports have made clear, the sinkholes put residents and businesses within their vicinity at serious risk and can cost millions of dollars to repair.

Many of the sinkholes occur, the AP reports, when there are water main breaks, which are a result of the country’s aging water infrastructure. Everyone seems to agree that we must begin to upgrade this critical infrastructure, knowing full well the daunting challenges of doing so.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost in approximately of 1 trillion dollars to expand and maintain our local water infrastructure. Facing such a monumental task and cost burden, project managers and engineers will need to be able use every tool their toolbox and find ways to stretch scarce resources so that they can tackle as many projects as possible.

How open competition can help

One common-sense solution would be to adopt policies that would allow engineers to select the best materials for their project and remove regulatory restrictions that limit these experts to pre-determined materials.

Many municipalities currently have statutes on the books that limit which materials can be used for projects. Oddly, they do not allow several materials that would otherwise meet project specifications and national standards to be considered. These questionable and unnecessary regulatory constraints increase the total cost of infrastructure projects and block the selection of new, innovative technologies.

Meanwhile, the quality and reliability of the nation’s aging water infrastructure continues to decline.

By removing these barriers and replacing them with an open, competitive bidding process for materials, project managers and engineers would be able to evaluate different options and select materials that are best suited for their goals – based on performance, durability and cost.

Studies have shown that when open competition is allowed, material costs can drop dramatically – up to 39 percent. These savings, which could stretch into the billions of dollars, could help fund more projects.

With so much work needed to make sure Americans continue to have access to clean, safe drinking water, Congress can help fix our nation’s infrastructure by requiring open, competitive bidding procedures for all materials in government funded projects. Doing so would allow engineers to make the best choice to help their communities and ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.

This was originally posted at the American Chemistry Council blog.

Views expressed in posts are those of the author and are not endorsed by Infrastructure Week, its steering committee, sponsors, or affiliates

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