The water crisis in Flint, Mich. — and its heart-wrenching impact on its children and the general health of its residents — is just the latest manifestation of a problem long languishing in cities across the Midwest.
In Ohio cities, it is estimated that aging infrastructure requires investments of more than $25 billion in the next two decades to maintain and upgrade wastewater and drinking water systems alone.
The human dimension to this crisis should be a clarion call to action for a problem that many local leaders, state policy-makers, and federal regulators have been trying to manage for years. Sebring, Ohio, has discovered similar challenges of lead pipes contaminating the water supply; and in the summer of 2014, in Toledo, aging infrastructure manifested itself in other ways when algae blooms in Lake Erie impacted the drinking water. While the problems are different, the causes are related.
At the end of last year, the Greater Ohio Policy Center turned a spotlight on this issue of aging sewer and water infrastructure in a preliminary report that surveyed these infrastructure challenges for Ohio cities and set a framework for identifying new financing tools.
The report uncovered many red flags and a familiar set of reasons for policy gridlock, and offered some explanation as to why few steps have been taken to make necessary but expensive infrastructure upgrades:
● Cities are under regulatory obligations they are struggling to comply with and that regulators have trouble fully enforcing.
● There are affordability issues for ratepayers who traditionally bear the greatest burden for the fixes but are the least able to do so. This is particularly the case in large cities in Ohio and across the country with a declining tax base and rising rates of poverty and low income ratepayers.
● And there is a growing lack of city capacity to take on the debt necessary to finance these large-scale projects. In Ohio cities, the shrinkage of our urban populations undermines many cities’ ability to adequately pay for repairs to systems that had been built for a much larger number of users.
Once again, in many of our older cities, fixes have been postponed — not because of neglect — but primarily because the challenges and solutions are so complicated.
While the easy response is to cast blame, this is a highly complex problem for which a true fix requires rare cooperation among multiple governmental levels and across sectors to forge financial solutions that are a heavy lift but would ultimately prevent more Flint’s, Sebring’s, and Toledo’s. Pointing fingers is easy, finding real solutions requires collaboration and innovation.
Ohio policy-makers have begun exploring the benefits and drawbacks of issuing traditional bonds to address these challenges; this will be an important source, but other states are using other and new financing to help communities upgrade and stabilize their systems.
New York and Connecticut have specialized banks that use limited public dollars to attract and create a marketplace for private investment. While not easily replicable, Cleveland has received philanthropic support to pilot innovative upgrade measures. The Greater Ohio Policy Center is examining how these emerging financing models can be replicated and scaled up to benefit many communities; findings from this analysis will be released in the fall.
For now, however, the biggest takeaway is that we can’t rely solely on public funds or traditional fixes.
The fixes include a mix of upgraded old-fashioned new pipes (so called “gray infrastructure”) as well as using “green infrastructure” solutions that leverage local green areas for storm-water control and filtration, for instance. We also need to manage water quality issues across an entire watershed rather than relying only on local solutions.
Ohio’s cities need innovative public-private financing tools aligned with state policies that allow communities to upgrade affordably and set them up for future fiscal and economic success. We have an opportunity to be bold and build cities of tomorrow out of the legacy cities of today.
Lavea Brachman is executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center in Columbus.
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