The consensus is clear: Significant investment in our country’s infrastructure is critical to sustain short- and long-term growth. Maine is no exception.
But when it comes to infrastructure, safe and reliable drinking water and wastewater treatment are probably the easiest to take for granted. We just assume that when we turn on the tap we’ll get clean water.
Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report grading the country and each state on their infrastructure health. The wide-ranging report covers everything from water, roads and bridges to dams and hazardous waste. In 2016, our country scored dismally for drinking water and wastewater treatment, earning D’s in both categories. Maine did just a little better, earning a D-plus in wastewater treatment and a C-plus in drinking water.
PC Construction is on the front lines of improving water treatment facilities in Maine and along the East Coast. We’ve worked on significant projects in the towns of Brunswick, Sanford and Vassalboro. We also have water and wastewater improvement projects underway at nearly two dozen facilities from Maine to Florida. In fact, we are digging our way under Atlanta with a tunnel boring machine as part of the city’s extensive water supply program, the largest project of its kind in the country.
No matter the size or scope, the challenges are the same — water districts struggle to control costs for customers, while investing in much needed modernization.
In Brunswick, for example, the wastewater treatment facility was originally built in 1966. There were some upgrades over the years, the most recent in 1990. But 25 years later, the plant needed serious updates to replace aging and worn parts and improve water treatment. The improvements under construction by our team required a steadfast local commitment and state and federal funding. Simply put, construction is the easy part. The upgraded facility, which will improve plant efficiency, reduce long-term operating costs and replace aged equipment, will be completed later this year.
The list of other worthy projects in Maine — and elsewhere in the country — could fill the pages of a newspaper. Our state has a $22 million per year shortfall in funding for safe drinking water improvements and a $1 billion backlog in wastewater treatment projects, according to the Maine infrastructure report card.
And every year that goes by, we fall further and further behind.
As the American Society of Civil Engineers wrote in its 2016 report, the “lack of funding for infrastructure investment and proper maintenance adversely affects Maine’s ability to protect public health.”
It’s a serious problem, and it’s only getting worse.
During the 1930s, our country saw a surge in infrastructure investment with the Civilian Conservation Corps, the American Society of Civil Engineers points out, followed by another in the 1970s and 1980s with the development of the Clean Water Act. Now, as we quickly approach 2020, our country needs to put infrastructure investments at the forefront. The next report is scheduled for release in March, and I am not optimistic that we will see much improvement.
As our economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, we have an opportunity to make sound investments that will support our growing communities and do so in ways that makes them healthier for our children and grandchildren.
In a joint statement announcing an Environmental Protection Agency clean water grant for Maine in 2015, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King agreed that “water infrastructure helps to set the foundation for the health and safety of communities across Maine.”
By combining collaborative delivery approaches to construction — such as construction management at-risk and design-build — with innovative technologies, it is possible to stretch infrastructure dollars without jeopardizing quality. But it can’t happen without a national commitment to rebuilding our country’s critical infrastructure.
We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. We can’t afford to wait any longer.
Joseph Picoraro is a vice president of PC Construction, where he has worked for 39 years. He lives in South Portland.