- Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives recently introduced a bill intended to cut costs for and increase the longevity of federally funded water-based infrastructure projects. The Sustainable Municipal Access to Resilient Technology in Infrastructure (SMART Infrastructure) Act was introduced by Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas).
- The bipartisan legislation seeks to update federal laws that require iron pipes be used in public water infrastructure projects and to "open competition” to allow for an unnamed array of "more cost-effective and innovative" materials to be implemented.
- A study by the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) found that, if alternative materials are selected in the procurement process for public water projects, they'd likely result in longer-lasting structures, and could therefore save more than $371 billion in federal replacement costs.
Several municipalities have regulations in place that significantly restrict the types of materials available used for infrastructure projects. Those receiving funds from several federal agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration would have to make changes, should the bill become law.
The SMART Infrastructure Act encourages what it considers “modern, resilient solutions that use taxpayer dollars responsibly by requiring fair and open competition among suppliers of construction materials for infrastructure projects that receive federal funding.”
“This bill makes a simple but critical reform to our federally-funded procurement and project-development process by returning authority and responsibility to the construction professionals who know best,” said Babin in a statement.
It’s no secret that U.S. water infrastructure is not as innovative as it could be, and the mandated materials in some municipalities are outdated, Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors, told Construction Dive.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) reported in August 2017 that there are 240,000 water main breaks every year in the U.S., and $2.6 billion is wasted due to issues with aging pipes. Brubeck attributes this to the iron pipes that contractors are forced to use in many public water projects.
The ACC also found that replacing all of the water infrastructure in place could cost up to $1.3 trillion. Not all needs to be replaced, but allowing competition for materials going forward could allow for innovation and investments in pipes made from more durable material, such as plastic.
Using open competition could save between 26% to 39% in pipe cost per mile for drinking water and stormwater infrastructure, ACC said.
Iron pipe usage could have even contributed to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, Brubeck said, and that possibly using more up-to-date, “scientifically backed” technology and materials could have at least assuaged the issue partially. The bill would allow for materials that have a “longer shelf-life,” he said.
The new bill would also establish a task force designed to research and report the procurement process, provide oversight into long-term materials and find paths for the future of the process based on positive and negative factors after one year of the bill being in affect.
Brubeck said he couldn’t speculate on the possible timeframe for the SMART Infrastructure Act gaining any momentum because the bill only was introduced recently in the House committee. Even if it becomes law, some states that don't receive federal funding will still allow outdated materials for water infrastructure projects, and Brubeck says it could take years for them to follow suit.
“I’m not sure where it’s going to end up,” said Brubeck. “It’s still early.”