National Public Works Week to honor workers and raise awareness

The men and women who design, build, maintain and operate public works projects are being honored during National Public Works Week May 15-21. The American Public Works Association has sponsored the celebration and educational campaign for 45 years.

Last year APWA added a Washington, D.C., outreach component to the week, responding to what it says is a decade of increasing public demands and diminishing “federal support and investment in…local infrastructure.”

National Public Works Week on the Hill aims to educate members of Congress and federal agencies about national infrastructure issues. This year’s event focuses on the challenge of funding water supply and wastewater infrastructure maintenance and improvements.

“Both the clean water and safe water state revolving loan funds, used by municipalities to help communities meet water quality and drinking water standards [and] repair and replace old pipelines and plants … have seen dramatic decreases in the past few years,” said Kristina Tanasichuk, senior manager of the APWA.

According to APWA, federal funding for clean water infrastructure has decreased by 70 percent since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, accounting for just 5 percent of national infrastructure costs today.

“Continual funding of water infrastructure is essential since many systems have pipes that are 50 to 100 years old and in need of replacement,” Tanasichuk says. More than $4 billion of water projects are ready to move forward in less than 90 days but instead are stalled due to a lack of funding, she continued.

Stu Megaw, director of the Associated General Contractors of America’s municipal and utilities division, said the lack of funding can leave contractors sitting on their hands.

“There is less work for the contractor,” he says. “We have folks ready to do all the work that’s waiting to be done out there. It’s unfortunate that localities have to pick up the ball where the federal government has dropped it recently.”

But Megaw isn’t concerned only about contractors.

“We just got good news on the highway bill, but we still have work to do in water and wastewater infrastructure,” he says. The Senate approved a version of a six-year highway bill May 17. The previous funding program expired in 2003 and has been temporarily extended several times. “There is a $300 billion shortfall over next 20 years for water and wastewater combined. Clearly there is a public health crisis looming if something isn’t done now. We’ll lose all the gains we’ve made since the passage of the Clean Water Act.”

The Associated Press reports that Michigan is already seeing some of the effects of underfunding. A study released yesterday by the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit research and advocacy organization, claims sewage is contaminating the Great Lakes and other regional waters because aged municipal waste treatment systems are not stopping overflows.

Joe Fivas, transportation and environmental affairs manager for the Michigan Municipal League, told the AP that inadequate budgets are the top reason cities haven’t made sewer upgrades faster.

“The reality is they are underfunded and don’t have the resources to have Cadillac systems,” Fivas said.

On a more positive note, communities in states from Alabama to Alaska are using the event to educate the public and honor the work of professionals responsible for roads, transit systems, drinking water and wastewater systems and other public services. Here are some of this year’s activities:

  • Students in Westminster, Colo., learned about trucks and graders used to keep roads in good repair, as well as how the trucks are maintained.
  • In Alachua County, Florida, city and county heavy equipment crews competed in a much-anticipated Road-eo, and students explored the heavy equipment, fleet management and sign shop at the public works compound.
  • In Anacortes, Wash., the water treatment plant was open for tours and visitors operated surveying equipment, although Robert Hyde, director of public works, admits that riding on garbage trucks and street sweepers is what really excited the kids.