The White House’s efforts to nudge Congress into making more infrastructure investments landed on the banks of the Anacostia River on Friday, where Vice President Biden touted a massive sewer project.
Biden was touring the Southeast Washington work site of a $2.6 billion, two-decade project of the city’s water and sewer utility to stem sewage runoff into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
“I tell you what — that’s a big auger, man,” Biden said shortly after gaining an up-close look at “Nannie” — a 26-foot-wide, 1,248-ton tunnel-boring machine soon to begin a 2.5-mile journey through subterranean silt and clay. “That’s a big sucker. Pretty impressive.”
The tunnel machine and the gaping, 120-foot-deep shaft into which it will soon be placed are part of the Clean Rivers Project, on the edge of RFK Stadium grounds. Biden visited the site with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
To environmental activists, the project is the fruit of years of litigation to force D.C. Water and the city government to stem the pollution caused by its 150-year-old combined sewer system, which can overflow into waterways during periods of rain.
To Biden and others, the project is an example of the infrastructure investment necessary to keep the American economy competitive. Although the Clean Rivers Project is being funded mainly by local ratepayers, it has been supported by some congressional appropriations.
“If we’re going to lead the world in the 21st century . . . then we have to have the most advanced infrastructure in the world,” he said. “Businesses do not come to places where the water is dirty.”
McCarthy announced the creation of an EPA “Water Finance Center” that will seek to facilitate public-private partnerships to build and fix water and sewer systems. And Biden announced an initiative to open those kinds of partnerships to types of bond financing previously available only to projects funded entirely by tax dollars.
He mentioned his days as a county council member in Delaware in the early 1970s, when, he said, a combined sewer system was the “biggest problem” he faced.
“It’s one of the hardest things to deal with because it costs so much money, and it is not anything that the people can see,” he said. “It’s one thing to go out and convince people that you should raise revenue to build a new park or to build something they can see or they can feel. . . . And so we have a gigantic problem.”
Once in place 100 feet underground later this spring, Nannie will dig a 2.5-mile portion of a 13-mile network of tunnels that will capture storm runoff.
An identical tunnel-boring machine, “Lady Bird,” has been at work for nearly 18 months and has already proceeded nearly three miles north from the Blue Plains water treatment plant at the District’s southern tip. The Nannie tunnel is expected to connect with the Lady Bird tunnel in 2017.
Biden climbed onto the back of Nannie with D.C. Water General Manager George S. Hawkins, who demonstrated how dirt is transported out the back of the machine for later removal. The group then walked a few yards to peer down into the entry shaft.
Although Bowser’s administration has become bogged down this week under pressure to provide answers about the Metro incident near L’Enfant Plaza that left one passenger dead, the afternoon media event was a showcase for her: She was able to assume the once-familiar role of a D.C. mayor cheering on a sitting Democratic administration.
Her predecessor, Vincent C. Gray, had only occasional opportunities to rub shoulders with top administration officials while his 2010 campaign was undergoing a thorough Justice Department investigation.
Bowser praised efforts to have the federal government step in to solve tough local government problems and called on Congress to cooperate.
“We have to be prepared for the day-to-day challenges of running our cities, and bickering and partisanship won’t help us,” she said. “We know that our friends on Capitol Hill know that, too.”
After Biden took the podium, a helicopter flew overhead — interrupting his remarks and offering him a chance to ad lib at the expense of the Republican speaker of the House.
“That’s John Boehner, flying over to see me,” he cracked. “John wants to help!”