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Monday, February 18, 2013

Now’s the time for a national commitment to green infrastructure

In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of our nation’s “aging infrastructure” - ports, pipelines, roads and schools – “badly in need of repair.” He proposed an eminently sensible “Fix-It-First” program for the most urgent repairs and a “Partnership to Rebuild America” to attract private capital to improve infrastructure.

The President’s call for more public-private partnerships (P3) to fix infrastructure has the private sector salivating.  I’m not at all sold on – in fact, I’m very skeptical of - the P3 concept.  I looked at it as Mayor of a small city in northeastern Pennsylvania almost two decades ago, and my opinion hasn’t changed since.  See here, for an example of why.

But that skepticism is a side note.  What’s important is that the President’s call presents an opportunity for green infrastructure.

Green infrastructure (GI) generally includes measures that replicate and restore the natural hydrologic cycle to reduce the volume of stormwater runoff: porous pavements, vegetated roofs and planter boxes, rain gardens, rain barrels, irrigation supply systems, and more. The deployment of green infrastructure produces a very significant range of economic and social benefits - capital and avoided cost savings compared to conventional infrastructure, energy savings, property value increases, reduction in urban heat island effect, improvements in community health, and more.

In Pennsylvania, the cities of Lancaster and Philadelphia have aggressive green infrastructure programs that could serve as statewide – and national - models. 

The economics of green infrastructure are particularly important.  In 2008, a survey by the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Task Force (SWITF) found that Pennsylvania alone is facing nearly $11 billion in unmet drinking water infrastructure needs and at least $7.2 billion in unmet wastewater infrastructure needs – the latter a major source of the state’s poor water quality - plus millions of dollars more in ongoing operation and maintenance costs. The need for new investments – and for better approaches like GI - are painfully obvious in the combined sewer overflows, leaking and deteriorated collection systems, deferred rehabilitation and replacement work, and shortage of treatment capacity that plague the state’s water systems.

SWITF found that over the next 20 years, the funding gap between Pennsylvania’s total drinking water and sewer service needs and total available funding adds up to $43.8 billion. Realistic strategies for closing the financing gap will likely require increased reliance upon user rates related to the cost of service, as well as increases in federal and state funding.

GI can help close the gap and provide multiple community benefits at the same time.  And as the President wisely knows, an aggressive water infrastructure investment program would have significant job-creation capacity. 

A national infrastructure push should include strong support – indeed, a preference - for green infrastructure.

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