Guest Opinion: Investment needed in the heartland

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dec. 26

The criminal charges against a growing number of defendants in the Flint, Mich., water scandal should send two powerful messages to officials at all levels of government. Their primary duty is to protect their constituents, and improvements to the nation’s infrastructure are urgently needed, especially in communities left bereft by deindustrialization.

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Flint’s water wasn’t treated for lead between April 2014 and October 2015, after officials switched water sources and began using the Flint River to supply homes and businesses. The failure to properly treat the water exposed consumers to unhealthy levels of lead, which is especially dangerous for children, and also has been implicated in an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which killed 12 people. Making matters worse, when consumers began reporting illness and complained about the color and smell of the water, officials were slow to respond.

So far, 13 people have been charged for the crisis that, when it came to light, caused widespread panic and a run on bottled water. The latest charges came last week against four former officials, including Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, who were “emergency managers” appointed by the state to oversee Flint’s fiscal difficulties in 2014 and 2015. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has alleged that a “fixation on finances and balance sheets” overrode concern for the public health in Flint.

While it is easy to deride officials’ incompetence or indifference, the larger issue is deindustrialization, including the loss of the Buick manufacturing complex that sustained Flint for decades.

When a city’s tax base goes, so does money for infrastructure projects, such as upgrading the water pipes. Instead, officials put long-term projects on the back burner and start scrounging the couch cushions for change. Just keeping the police employed, lights on and parks open is a challenge. Flint officials once bought water from a Detroit system but decided to go another route to save money.

As in many parts of the country, Flint’s water system relies on aging pipes that can contribute lead to the water supply. Communities need to improve their drinking water infrastructure as much as they do their crumbling highways, bridges and water navigation systems. Such investments will keep Americans safe, put them to work and keep the economy humming.

Recently, President Barack Obama signed the $10 billion Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which authorizes hundreds of improvement projects nationwide, including replacement of three locks and dams on the Ohio River and $170 million for infrastructure upgrades and other aid to Flint. But much more is needed.

Consider the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Parts of the toll road haven’t been touched since the 1940s, for example, yet the agency’s 10-year, nearly $5.8 billion capital budget calls for less spending than occurred under the preceding 10-year plan.

The next Congress should make sure infrastructure development is a national priority. Flint’s calamity is a clarion call for change.