Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Down the Drain

Commonwealth Magazine has just published an article I wrote, entitled, "Down the Drain, Infrastructure Needs a Cheering Section." (Access is free. You may have to register.)

Regular readers here will know of my passion for this topic. This piece is based on interviews I did several years ago about the metropolitan area sewer system, but the article is really focused on the deterioration of the Boston transit system. Some of the folks I interviewed are no longer around, so this will be a throw-back for some Bostonians.

Here's a teaser, the lede from the article:

Infrastructure degrades slowly, indeed imperceptibly. The bus arrives a little less frequently; the subway breaks down a bit more often; the water pipe loses water through leakage; the sewer system adds a bit more pollution to the environment. For the most part, there is no political consequence from a deteriorating infrastructure.

In contrast, investment in infrastructure occurs episodically, with direct political consequences. It often requires a vote to increase taxes or fees, which go into effect immediately. Yet the investments that result from that vote take years to be felt in improved services or facilities. Those who vote “yes” get no credit. Indeed, they are likely to be assigned blame and criticized for raising taxes or fees by a public that does not trust they are necessary.

Kevin Harrington, the former president of the Massachusetts Senate, once gave a detailed description of the mechanics of this dynamic on Beacon Hill. Harrington was elected in 1959, when the Metropolitan District Commission was in charge of the region’s water and sewer system. At the time, all MDC expenditures approved by the Legisla­ture would be assigned to the cities and towns in the district and collected from the public through property taxes. Harrington related how engineers from the agency would come before the Legisla­ture’s Natural Resources Committee seeking money because the plants taking care of sewage were obsolete.

“And then politics raised its ugly head,” Har­rington said when I sat down with him more than a decade ago to try to make sense of how the political establishment deals with infrastructure projects. “It’s so simple, so plain, and so sad—the representatives and senators that were inside of the MDC district would come to those of us who were not in the district, and they would say, ‘Please don’t vote for this money. Our local mayors, our city councilors, and alderman and selectman don’t want their property taxes to go up.’ So I would say in my stupidity, ‘Of course, I’ll vote with you.’”

The metropolitan area transit system is the current poster child for this built-in dynamic that leads us to put off infrastructure investments....


Paul Levy said...

From Facebook:

Kevin Connolly: Great article.

Robert J. Ciolek: Brought back a lot of memories...good article and I hope it helps bring attention to infrastructure issues.

Tom Tilas: The Water Infrastructure Finance Commission is trying to bring this debate front and center..We will be issuing a report in the Fall of 2011..Great article Paul...I am going to use it as part of the report, if you don't mind...Hopefully , someone will step up and carry the water !!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Paul. This discussion is even more apropos now with the debate in DC and almost every state capital. They need a bridge to collapse to dedicate resources to infrastructure.

Andy said...

Great article--I especially appreciate you pointing out the use of the platitude "reform before revenue" to avoid addressing fundamental problems.

The MBTA has plastered their subways with ads about everything they are doing to improve the system. I wonder if they may also use that ad space to lobby directly for more funding.

John Bullard said...

NIMTOFF has always been more powerful than NIMBY, but less understood. Not In My Term of OFFice.

John said...

That was a great article, chock full of common sense at a time when our country seems to have totally lost it.

I also really appreciated the historical perspective. You gave due to some real heroes from a grim era of Massachusetts' history. Several were high-profile, courageous leaders and public officials. But I was especially touched by your mention of those poor scuba divers who dove to the bottom of the sewage holding tank. Many times over the past 25+ years I have cited their example when someone has been asked to do something really unpleasant or dangerous, with the certainty of not getting credit or acknowledgment.

Richard said...

Great article! I hope we can learn from our past mistakes.

HL said...

A very interesting article. There are two additional problems.

First, rates are often kept so low that they do not cover operating expenses. I am told that MBTA fees only cover 50% of the cost of running the system.

Second, politicians seem divided over the question of whether infrastructure capital improvements are an investment or an expense. The answer makes a big difference in this political climate.

Ellen said...

I appreciate the reminder that infrastructure isn't a social service. Too often I find myself framing issues in that way, especially for public transportation.

I'm curious about your interviews. From what I've gathered, public agents seem to think that they need more time and resources to advocate for infrastructure projects. Is this a misconception?

Fascinating's got me brainstorming.

Peter Metz said...

A very thoughtful and timely article. It is a real problem in our "anti-government society". While I agree that it needs to be done, I fear that looking for infrastructure leaders who have the talent to raise and motivate a constituancy is not a reliable solution. I sense that Fred Lasky at the MWRA is trying to do this, and so is, to some extent, general manager Richard Davey of the MBTA. Another tactic is to wait for a tragedy and then invoke some commission's recommendation - also not reliable. A good solution, though not always possible, is to have a dedicated revenue stream set high enough to at least cover "depreciation", and hopefully improvement as well. The gasoline tax functioned this way for a long time, but since it hasn't been raised to even keep up with inflation in a long time, is now woefully inadequate to maintaining our roads and bridges, much less replacing them when needed. The problem is that it was set as a fixed amount rather than one that automatically increased as inflation and costs rose. The infrastructure problem is now massive: two years ago a Massachusetts transportation finance commission identified a $20 billion transportation infrastructure deficiency. We can't go on this way.

Anonymous said...

It is sadly ironic that as our last clunker of a space shuttle heads to that near orbital dock, China's production of PhDs outpaces our own. I get the obstacle of zero-sum thinking (what's yours is not mine), but I don't understand silence on the vast benefits of shared investment in natural, human, and technological capital. Each time I hear "no new taxes," I wonder if they said aloud "no new schools! no clean air! no safe food! no good healthcare!" Entropy is inescapable, but shortsightedness is not.

See June 2011 PNAS "Risk of collective failure provides an escape from the tragedy of the commons" Santos and Pacheco

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with the need for infrastructure investment and the disconnect between those requirements and political realities on the ground.

However, while investment in maintenance and expansion of infrastructure is certainly necessary, by itself it is not sufficient. My sense is that many of the principal state agencies responsible for infrastructure suffer from dysfunctional management that seems utterly incapable of making good decisions or of managing infrastructure projects.

On the political side, the Governor's "consolidation" of the state's various transportation agencies into a single unified Dept. of Transportation seems to have been almost entirely cosmetic and symbolic, like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Best I can tell, the most visible indication of "integration" among the formerly separate transportation agencies is that they now can be accessed through the DOT website. Big deal. A lot of talk, but no real leadership here.

Bill Geary said...

Thanks for writing the article and posting John's comments, which I concur with.

The Metro Police Officers who dove into raw sewage to the bottom of the Deer Island pump Room to repair the broken pipe gasket on Mother's Day 1983, were the most outstanding public servants I ever had the privilege to serve with.

Afterwards, I awarded all of them the highest Commendation the Metro Police Commissioner could confer for Valor. The Commendation said in part - "The Officers did the unthinkable to achieve the impossible without without fear for their personal safety".

As Paul knows, there were no financial stipends attached to the awards. I ordered a bouquet of roses for each man's wife as an acknowledgement that she missed her husband on Mother's Day. I did that for all the Sewer division personnel who worked that day as well.

I also used the emergency to utilize Sewerage Division capital funds to purchase all new dive equipment for the entire Dive Team -- items they had requested for their capital budget that had been denied for many prior budget cycles.

I kept in touch with most of the officers through the years and I believe they are all retired by now. One officer did contract a chronic stomach disorder as a result of his dive and he eventually was given a disability retirement.

All the career MDC employees from every Division of the Agency who responded to that catastrophe were heroes on that day. Unfortunately, the numerous good deeds of those dedicated professionals are often forgotten while the periodic misdeeds of a few live on for all too long.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to mass transit, the knowledge and the capability are there: The crunch comes when you try to add something to an operating budget for preventive maintenance. This is more sad and expensive than dangerous; most things get caught before they are a danger to the public because of mandated inspections – but at a point where unnecessarily extensive repair or even replacement is required.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article and your willingness to sound this alarm. A cheering section is needed even more given what state finances are and what the Tea Party imagines!