Investing in the Green Side of Infrastructure
Before starting a job as general counsel to the United States Environmental Protection Agency Region III in Philadelphia in 1973, I was told that Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged was required reading. The book’s depiction of an America plagued by crumbling infrastructure was harrowing and, ever since reading it, I have lived with concerns over the future integrity of our nation’s infrastructure in general, and our city’s in particular.
I left the government in 1975 to become an environmental attorney and have been dealing with the problems caused by our aging infrastructure for the past 40 years. In addition to acting as an attorney for many municipalities, I have served as chair of the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PennVest), a statewide funding agency that makes grants and low interest loans for drinking water, wastewater, and storm water projects that qualify for federal and state assistance. With the advent of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) a few years ago, PennVest has focused on “green” infrastructure and shovel-ready projects that can be implemented quickly as a stimulus to create jobs. In this capacity, I have become familiar with the Philadelphia Water Department’s (PWD) innovative green infrastructure plan, which aims to remove as much as one-third of the city’s storm water from combined sewers by redirecting it and helping to prevent the overflow of Philadelphia’s three waste water treatment plants during wet weather events. Under the leadership of PWD Commissioner Howard Neukrug, the City created what has become a national model for green infrastructure.
A world class strategy to support sustainable systems requires not only the preservation of infrastructure to ensure our water quality and supply, but it also requires world class parks and open space. William Penn’s 17th century plans for the City recognized this by creating parkland to protect Philadelphia’s water sources – an approached mimicked by PWD’s green infrastructure strategy to use open space to absorb excess storm water.
Penn’s legacy of our almost 10,000-acre Fairmount Park predates by two centuries our water infrastructure, but similarly, requires the public and private sectors to invest in the Park’s preservation. The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commission, headed by Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis, has the support of Mayor Nutter and City Council from the governmental sector; the Fairmount Park Conservancy and other park organizations from the non-profit world; and foundations, corporations and individuals from the private sector. But as with water infrastructure, these efforts to keep our open spaces resilient require the investment of funds and labor, without which parkland is forever lost.
So as we endeavor to create a “world class strategy” to obtain a sustainable, resilient water system, we must be mindful of the obstacles we need to overcome to achieve world class infrastructure – those of which Ayn Rand couldn’t conceive in 1957 when she penned Atlas Shrugged. I mention the two most significant.
First, if we are to address the aging and deterioration of our infrastructure, we must not only be innovative through approaches like greening, but we must ensure the continued political will and financial assistance that is essential. Congressional reductions to funding programs like PennVest cut against efforts such as PWD’s. Without ongoing investment in our infrastructure, it will fail. Ayn Rand’s novel illustrated such failure and today, almost daily accounts of infrastructure failure throughout the country (e.g., bursting pipes, flooding treatment plants) have changed fiction to fact.
Second, the environment in which our infrastructure now finds itself has changed – the climate is changing and threatens our infrastructure with a rising frequency of catastrophic weather events and rising sea levels (e.g., Superstorm Sandy). As many in Congress remain in denial of these climatic challenges, we see the same cost-reduction efforts to reduce federal infrastructure investment.
World class status requires our elected and appointed leaders to come together – to avoid our infrastructure from coming apart. We already have the resources, including water infrastructure and open space, to be a world class city and region; they do not need to be created – simply respected, supported, and preserved for generations yet to come.
Joseph M. Manko, Esq.
Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox, LLP