Where Do We Go from Here?

Public Works brings a sense of normalcy to our nation

By Mary Joyce Ivers and Scott D. Grayson

As leaders representing more than 30,000 American Public Works Association (APWA) members, we know the importance of public works to the foundation of our communities throughout our nation.

While millions of Americans followed “stay-at-home” orders, public works professionals remained on the job, oftentimes at risk to their own well-being. With limited interruption, resilient public works professionals bring a sense of normalcy to communities throughout the world.

 Critical services we continue to provide to communities include rebuilding homes after wildfires, cleaning up after floods, filling potholes and maintaining streets and roadways. We are proud of our public works teams who have come together with flexibility, creativity and dedication to implement measures in keeping communities safe and providing safe outdoor recreation while maintaining infrastructure. During this time, the City of Ventura, Calif. developed an initiative to design a shared streets program in residential areas to provide safer walking and biking in areas where sidewalks were too narrow. This program allows residents to maintain social distance. While many employees are working from home, they have taken this opportunity to complete online training to maintain licenses and certifications, and APWA has been a great resource for these courses.

While millions of Americans followed “stay-at-home” orders, public works professionals remained on the job, oftentimes at risk to their own well-being.

Public works is not immune to COVID-19 or challenging economic realities. Many state and local governments are cutting funding sources for public works and important infrastructure projects.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) estimates an average decline in state transportation revenue of 30% over the next 18 months. Some states could experience losses as high as 45%. According to water sector stakeholders, the clean water sector estimates a $16.8 billion impact to clean water utilities, including $12.5 billion in lost revenue from decreased non-residential demand as industries and businesses close. Additionally, there are over $4 billion in costs to maintain residential wastewater service to households who are unable to pay. Similarly, the drinking water sector estimates $13.9 billion in annualized revenue losses to drinking water utilities because of the pandemic, including more than $5 billion in losses related to suspending water services disconnections and increased delinquencies.

State and local governments far outspend the federal government in every infrastructure category. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 59% of capital investment and 90% of operations and maintenance funding is from state and local sources. During this unprecedented time, federal assistance is required to operate, maintain and improve our nation’s critical infrastructure.

Despite cuts to public works and infrastructure, public works professionals across the country are adapting and finding new ways to serve residents. In Phoenix, Director of Public Works Ginger Spencer began working with city management to prepare plans and contingencies to keep services running. Her advice? “Make sure you have a Plan A, B and C in case your operations are affected.”

James Jackson, commissioner of Public Works in Atlanta, echoed that sentiment, saying one of the biggest challenges his city faces is when public works employees have gotten sick with COVID. There is a professional cost on top of the fact that a friend and colleague is sick. “That’s our biggest challenge,” Jackson said, “because with everyone else being shut down, we don’t have the luxury of asking anyone for help when we’re being impacted.”

In Houston, Public Works Director Carol Haddock has had to deal not only with several of her employees becoming infected, but severe storms and other events. Yet there has been a silver lining in terms of capital construction. “We’ve been able to get to more street construction; because we don’t have rush hour, on any given day they can work longer. We used to only work between 9 and 3, but now they can work 8 to 5 or 7 to 6.”
Josh Rowan, commissioner of the Atlanta Department of Transportation, has seen his department push hard to complete projects. “How do we do more ourselves? How do we do it faster? There’s a real appetite in the city for activity. People really love to see that pothole got fixed, the utility companies are working, this storm drain is fixed – it raises morale among employees and the public and makes it easier for us to continue with the improvements.”

In Los Angeles, a $5.7 billion public-private partnership has begun preconstruction work on the Sepulveda Transit Corridor Project. Brunswick, Ga., received a $15 million Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) loan to start the rehabilitation of the Academy Creek and Dunbar Creek Wastewater Plants. A public-private partnership in Tempe, Ariz. has begun construction on the $186 million streetcar system. In Ketchikan, Alaska, the $150 million expansion of the Port has entered the preconstruction phase after a public-private partnership was created to provide funding. While these projects and hundreds more like them are vital to their communities, there is still a need for federal resources even with the public-private partnership funding models.

Despite the obstacles that COVID-19 has thrown at us, public works embraced the challenges and continues to look for new ways to enhance our transportation system, improve our clean water supply and respond to natural disasters. Because of all the services Public Works provides to communities, they bring a sense of normalcy in uncertain times.

Mary Joyce Ivers, CPFP, PWLF, is president of APWA and deputy public works director for the City of Ventura, Calif. Public Works Department. Scott D. Grayson, CAE, is CEO of APWA.

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