Under ground stimulus
Water system repairs deserve a share of federal funds
The first "shovel-ready" road project in the nation to get the green light under the federal stimulus program happens to be in the White Oak area of Montgomery County, a fact that made national news when it was announced last week.
More than $2 million is being channeled from the feds to repave a stretch of New Hampshire Avenue, work that otherwise might have been shelved after the state deferred a few road maintenance projects to save cash.
The job is not only shovel-ready, but photo-op-ready, and helps promote the impact of the nascent stimulus program, which resembles an unassembled jigsaw puzzle as requests for project funds wend their way through any number of reviews and agencies claw for top spots on priority lists.
One of the most deserving and massive public-works projects in the suburbs is under ground: refurbishing hundreds of miles of disintegrating water and sewer lines of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the utility that serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
The WSSC wants about $80 million in federal help, a modest amount. The request has the backing of the County Council, county executive and influential members of Congress.
That support didn't prevent the request from hitting a snag. A Maryland department that is culling hundreds of applications for assistance determined the counties probably wouldn't qualify for outright grants because they're among the wealthiest in the state.
Ranking all the public-works projects that could be eligible for a quick funding infusion is turning out to be a delicate exercise — and one that is vital to prevent the squandering of dollars. Even with the transparency around stimulus spending that has been promised, the rush to dole out billions of dollars is certain to result in some waste.
The WSSC's needs and infrastructure problems have been well documented. The number of water-main cracks in January broke the previous record set in January 2003. By 2025, half of the utility's 5,000-plus mile water distribution network will be beyond its estimated useful life. At proposed funding levels, the WSSC has only enough money to replace about 30 miles of pipes in the next year.
Maryland stands to reap more than $3 billion from the stimulus program in the next two years and about $125 million is expected to go for water and sewer system rehabilitation.
Following reports that Montgomery and Prince George's could be shut out of consideration for utility grants because of a funding formula used by the Maryland Department of the Environment to determine eligibility, elected leaders flexed enough muscle to get the department to reconsider its approach. A decision on eligible projects is expected by Friday the 13th.
Accelerating the WSSC's pipe-replacement work is essential and an appropriate use of the first wave of stimulus funds.