Just about every jurisdiction in the Washington area has seen increases in taxes or utility fees in recent years, part of an effort to fix aging roads, sewer lines and other parts of the region’s crumbling infrastructure.
But repair efforts have still fallen far behind. During the next 15 years, the cost of fixing and updating basic infrastructure is expected to exceed available funding by $58 billion, according to a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
That means more floods in D.C. neighborhoods as corroding sewer lines and decrepit storm-water pipes give way. It means more potholes on highways and streets that are buckling under punishing weather and traffic, a problem that led to 95,000 repairs since January just in Northern Virginia. And it means more years of overcrowded schools and outdated libraries, police stations and firehouses.
The funding shortfall is part of a national infrastructure spending gap that in recent years has resulted in bridge collapses and levee breaks.
In a metropolitan region of 6 million people, where a sputtering regional economy has weakened government spending, local officials say the unmet need — including 176 bridges deemed “structurally deficient” — is reaching crisis proportions.
“Often, people begin to see the urgency only when the power goes out, or when the water is off,” said Stephen Walz, director of environmental programs for the Council of Governments, which surveyed government officials, utilities and urban planning experts before issuing its report. “The pipes below the streets are clearly, unless they break, out of sight, out of mind.”
Local officials and utility companies say they’re searching for ways to raise more money for needed upgrades and repairs.
In the District, D.C. Water has doubled its rates during the past six years, to an average of $95 per year per household, to pay for nearly $4 billion in repairs and upgrades to sewer lines and storm-water pipes over the next decade.
In Virginia’s Fairfax County, officials have created special tax districts for road improvements in Tysons Corner and Reston and are contemplating doing the same in other congested neighborhoods.
In Maryland, Montgomery County officials recently launched a six-year, $4.5 billion capital improvement program to deal with sidewalk and gutter repairs, road maintenance, and the need to build more classrooms for a school system that has grown by 14,600 students since 2000 and this year housed 9,000 students in trailers.
At the same time, officials say they need hundreds of millions of dollars more to widen clogged roads, upgrade sewer systems and fix buildings, bridges and tunnels that are deteriorating.
“What’s been handed to us is nobody’s fault,” said George S. Hawkins, chief executive of D.C. Water. “It is a reality of decades — maybe up to a century — of deferred maintenance.”
Half of the District’s 1,800 miles of sewer lines are at least 84 years old, and half of the 1,350 miles of water pipes in the city are at least 79 years old, Hawkins said. Some storm-water mains date to the Civil War.
“That’s sort of mind-boggling,” Hawkins said. He estimated that faulty pipes and mains in the nation’s capital account for between 400 and 500 water main breaks and about two dozen sewage spills every year. “Those are the events that can cut drinking water off, can cause a sewer collapse or a spill, that have dramatic effects to both the economy and the public health.”
For wastewater managers in the region, part of the funding shortfall is a result of stricter federal requirements aimed at reducing pollutant levels in local streams and rivers and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
For example, D.C. Water is spending $2.6 billion to meet the requirements of a 2005 federal consent decree to nearly eliminate overflows of sewage and storm water to the Anacostia, Potomac and Rock Creek waterways by 2030.
Another Environmental Protection Agency effort to significantly reduce levels of pollutants entering the Chesapeake Bay by 2025 has meant an extra $1 billion in upgrade costs for D.C. Water, about $1.9 billion for Montgomery County and about $660 million for Fairfax County, officials said.
The money going into those efforts eats into funds that are also needed for other kinds of maintenance, including upgrades to underground pipes that, in many cases, are too narrow to accommodate the amount of wastewater generated by the region’s increasingly dense population.
“Once you start to fall behind, you can’t catch up,” said Randy Bartlett, who oversees storm-water and wastewater management for Fairfax County. “Now, we’ve got this big catch-up.”
Millions of dollars will be needed to upgrade the region’s outdated 911 emergency system, the Council of Governments report says. The system uses old technology based on the services provided by traditional telecommunications carriers, which can be unreliable when someone is using a mobile phone to seek help.
Officials are working toward building a more comprehensive network that would link emergency call centers throughout the region to a secure computer network. That system could also sync with a person’s computerized medical information.
In its report, the Council of Governments recommends creating a regional infrastructure exchange to better coordinate such efforts. “It gives a framework for the officials in this region to explore the different opportunities that are out there,” Walz said. “Sometimes they can put together a broader financial package that ends up being less expensive for everybody.”
Local and state officials are juggling limited funds.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) recently reduced the state’s share of the cost of the planned light-rail Purple Line in the Washington suburbs, and he killed a separate light-rail project planned for Baltimore, in part to free up hundreds of millions of dollars for what he described as long-overdue road and bridge improvements.
The hard reality with infrastructure spending is, “the need is always going to outweigh the amount,” Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck said.
In the Coral Hills area of Prince George’s County, Gwen Bowman says she and her neighbors have lived with unmet needs for years, even though their enclave is part of a Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative meant to improve residents’ quality of life.
Several of the neighborhood’s streets don’t have sidewalks, and the roads “look like a quilt” with tar patches covering old potholes, Bowman said.
“They’re taking care of the low-hanging fruit, which is basically just keeping the streets clean,” Bowman said
Residents in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County see the effects of festering problems every time it rains.
They pin a jump in local flooding to storm-water pipes that are too narrow to accommodate runoff now that water-absorbing trees, grass and soil have been replaced with new structures, including a row of portable classroom trailers at Washington Mill Elementary School.
“There is a sheeting of water and a new creek coming through here whenever it rains,” said Louise Sloan, who lives behind the school.
Fairfax County officials are asking voters to pass a $310 million bond referendum in November that would fund renovations at nine county schools. The county is also asking voters to approve $151 million for improvements to fire stations, police stations and other public buildings that have worn down with time.
“Sometimes people are supportive of building new things because they’re getting something that’s brand new, that they hadn’t had before,” said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. “But they may not fully appreciate the need to replace the older infrastructure.”