fresh voices from the front lines of change







It’s somewhat fitting that a 30-foot geyser erupted from a broken water main practically around the corner from my home the night before the the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America a D+ on its 2013 infrastructure report card, and on the eve of a congressional vote on the only budget that includes the kind of infrastructure investment the country needs.

TAKE ACTION: The vote on the Progressive Caucus Back to Work Budget is now expected Wednesday. We’re focusing attention on 170 members of Congress who have yet to say yes to supporting the budget. Check this list and if one of these members of Congress represent you, call them today. And if you have not already, sign and share this petition calling on Congress to say no to Ryan and yes to jobs.

This was the scene last night, practically in my back yard.


A massive water main break in Chevy Chase blasted a 50-foot crater just off Connecticut Avenue on Monday night, sending a plume of water high into the air and triggering road closures, power outages and water restrictions.

Authorities said a tree pummeled by the geyser toppled about 5 a.m. Tuesday, bringing power lines down and complicating cleanup.

…The break in the 33-year-old, 54-inch pipe occurred in the 8400 block of Connecticut Avenue, across the street from Parkway Custom Dry Cleaning and about 100 yards south of the Capital Crescent Trail. The pipe, which runs north-south, adjacent to the street, is buried about 15 feet underground

Officially, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission was “unable to determine the cause of the break at this time.” At least one local news report cites WSSC as saying the break was the result of old, failing infrastructure.

The ASCE 2013 infrastructure report card gives the country a “D+” overall infrastructure grade, and recommends $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2020. The ASCE gave the country a “D” in drinking water, because of old, failing infrastructure, and noted an $84 billion shortfall in funding to meet our water infrastructure needs.

Although new pipes are being added to expand service areas, drinking-water systems degrade over time, with the useful life of component parts ranging from 15 to 95 years. Especially in the country’s older cities, much of the drinking water infrastructure is old and in need of replacement. Failures in drinking water infrastructure can result in water disruptions, impediments to emergency response, and damage to other types of infrastructure. Broken water mains can damage roadways and structures and hinder fire-control efforts. Unscheduled repair work to address emergency pipe failures may cause additional disruptions to transportation and commerce.

It is estimated that more than one million miles of water mains are in place in the United States. The conditions of many of these pipes are unknown, as they are buried underground out of sight, and owned and operated by various local entities. Some pipes date back to the Civil War era and often are not examined until there is a problem or a water main break. These breaks are becoming more common, as there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States.

Determining pipe condition through cost-effective structural assessment will allow worst‐condition pipes to be addressed first, avoiding potential failures and associated risks, damages, and costs. These structural condition assessments will also help avoid premature replacement of structurally sound pipes to save resources and time. As a result of these benefits, demand for and value from these assessments is expected to increase significantly over the next 20 years.

The only budget in Washington that come close to addressing the country’s infrastructure needs is the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ “Back to Work Budget.”

"Back to Work" Budget Comparison

We’re in a jobs crisis that isn’t going away.  Millions of hard-working American families are falling behind, and the richest 1 percent is taking home a bigger chunk of our nation’s gains every year. Americans face a choice: we can either cut Medicare benefits to pay for more tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, or we can close these tax loopholes to invest in jobs.  We choose investment.  The Back to Work Budget invests in America’s future because the best way to reduce our long-term deficit is to put America back to work.  In the first year alone, we create nearly 7 million American jobs and increase GDP by 5.7%.  We reduce unemployment to near 5% in three years with a jobs plan that includes repairing our nation’s roads and bridges, and putting the teachers, cops and firefighters who have borne the brunt of our economic downturn back to work.  We reduce the deficit by $4.4 trillion by closing tax loopholes and asking the wealthy to pay a fair share.  We repeal the arbitrary sequester and the Budget Control Act that are damaging the economy, and strengthen Medicare and Medicaid, which provide high quality, low-cost medical coverage to millions of Americans when they need it most.  This is what the country voted for in November.  It’s time we side with America’s middle class and invest in their future.

The Back to Work Budget “substantially increases infrastructure investment to the level the American Society of Civil Engineers says is necessary to close our infrastructure needs gap,” by increasing investment in our roads, bridges, transit, energy, and water infrastructure — and creating 7 million jobs in the bargain. An Economic Policy Institute analysis shows that the investments in the “Back to Work” budget yield enormous returns by creating jobs while simultaneously meeting our infrastructure needs, and averting the loss of 3.5 million jobs if we don’t make necessary investments in infrastructure.

This morning’s news had me thinking about water infrastructure in particular, and specifically about whether my family will have water this evening, and whether that water will be safe for things like drinking and brushing teeth before bedtime. Our area is under mandatory water restrictions that could last up to a week, to “to ensure fire departments, hospitals and medical facilities have the water they need,” and to replenish the 60 million gallons lost when the main broke. So, we’re to reduce our water usage by 10 percent by taking shorter showers, limiting flushing toilets (not after every use), putting off doing laundry, and limiting the use of dishwashers to full loads — or face a $500 fine.

Maryland received both an overall infrastructure grade and a water infrastructure grade of “C-“. When I see that kind of grade on my kid’s report card, it usually means “needs improvement” — which usually means some parental investment of time and/or money, to make sure the necessary improvement actually happens. and failure is averted.

We witnessed one spectacular example of such failure last night, and endured the consequences this morning. The combined impact of the water main break and an overturned truck on the beltway snarled traffic this morning, extending commutes, and making lots of people (including yours truly) incredibly late for work. That’s a loss in productivity for businesses and organizations, especially for businesses nearest the scene of the break, many of which remained closed due to lack of running water, electricity, heating, etc.

According to The Washington Post, the water main that burst last night is exactly the kind of pipe that ruptured under River Road in 2008, leading to dramatic helicopter rescues, and exactly the same kind of pipe that bust near Capitol Heights in 2011. Another failed water main, which made the news in the time it took me to write this post main threatens to make getting back home this evening just as difficult as getting to work this morning. That’s two broken water mains today, and the day isn’t over yet.

It’s nothing new in Maryland.

We experience that kind of failure on a regular basis, especially in counties that have seen significant population growth. Montgomery County just became the first Maryland county to have more than 1 million residents. When decades-old infrastructure, weakened by lack of investment in upkeep and improvements, collides with the demands of a growing population, you get spectacular failure like those above.

You also get the kind of small failures that we see in our neighborhood, where the water main at the end of the block sprouts a new leak every year, around winter. And every winter that leak causes a sheet of ice to form on the road.

Every year the county responds to calls about the ice by salting the icy patch.

Every year the water utility responds by coming out and patching the old, leaky water main, which usually causes another old-water mail a block or two away to sprout a leak. The water utility workers sometimes work into the night, running back and forth between leaks, slowing down traffic and lengthening commutes, patching and patching until the leaking is stopped. Until next year, that is, when the whole cycle starts over again.

The ASEC says Maryland needs $5.4 billion in drinking water infrastructure investment in 20 years, to make needed improvements and avoid failures like the one that happened last night.

We either need to pass the “Back To Work” Budget, or we need to buy an ark.

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