Infrastructure Fractured Facts

A recent Detroit Free Press editorial, “Michigan becoming an infrastructure backwater” echoes the infrastructure bashing we so often hear these days. We’re not maintaining our once robust infrastructure, or so the argument goes. Such calls to action demand a response, and not the hearty endorsement you’re likely to hear from the public and infrastructure contractors.

In summer 2016, The Engineering Society of Detroit’s TechCentury magazine published my article, “A History of Water and Wastewater Treatment in Greater Detroit”, describing how we got to where we are today with respect to our water and wastewater infrastructure, and it’s not what most would imagine.

Before a problem is addressed, in this case infrastructure, it has to be defined correctly. In fact, the vast majority of Michigan’s and America’s infrastructure, invisible to the public when it performs as intended, is performing reasonably well or very well, and quite often, maintenance is not the reason when it isn’t. The fact is much of the public’s dissatisfaction with our infrastructure has more to do with modern (evolving) expectations than it does with maintenance.

The Free Press said, “In short, our unwillingness to pay to maintain the fabulous infrastructure we’ve built in Michigan means we can’t enjoy much of it for much longer”, and they supported this assertion by citing the Flint water crisis, basement flooding incidents, sewage overflows to rivers and lakes, and deteriorating roads. In fact, the Flint water problem had nothing to do with poorly maintained infrastructure, but was due to a decision to use lead pipe years ago and a recent decision not to treat the water to prevent corrosion when the Flint water plant was reactivated. The rare flooding in our basements is caused by conscious decisions to size pipes for storms of a certain intensity and duration, and to accept flooding (somewhere) when it rains harder than this, as building to handle any imaginable storm means pipes can double or triple in size. Almost all of the sewage “dumped” in our lakes and rivers is a result of a conscious decision decades ago to combine storm and sanitary sewers, at that time to flush deadly sewage from Detroit streets and alleys, and in recent years we’ve made progress in reducing these overflows. Even the lifespans of our roads is a conscious decision, tacitly endorsed by a cost averse public that expects German-like road performance made possible by an America that has paid for much of Germany’s defense since World War II. Many of the infrastructure problems the public experiences are not the result of poor maintenance, or “unwillingness to pay to maintain the fabulous infrastructure we’ve built”, but past or present conscious decisions, and new expectations. Until we get the narrative correct, how can we make the progress the public desires?