Mayor Baraka: Some infrastructure challenges can be resolved by cities and counties | Opinion

Posted May 14, 2021

By Ras J. Baraka

Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka says city and county governments need to get creative and collaborative in solving their infrastructure challenges for the next generation. The cities and counties able to do so will make a much-needed dent in infrastructure improvement, while also creating economic opportunity for all residents. Above, workers replace water lines in Newark. 
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When it comes to generation-defining infrastructure programs, cities and counties can find the strength to implement real solutions to the governance challenges of our day by working together.

From our roads and bridges to our public utilities, to our schools, much of America’s infrastructure is crumbling. In its most recent report, The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) graded the country’s infrastructure as a C-, estimating that more than $6 trillion in improvements is needed over the next decade.

As we know in Newark, the latest American Water Works Association survey estimates that more than 6 million existing water pipes in the U.S. are lead service lines that connect municipal water supplies to homes and create an ongoing risk for lead to enter the drinking water of 15-22 million people.

With little federal, and often little state, funding to speak of, city and county governments need to get creative and collaborative in solving their infrastructure challenges for the next generation. The cities and counties able to do so will make a much-needed dent in infrastructure improvement, while also creating economic opportunity for all residents.

Working with a county partner can allow cities to tackle bigger infrastructure projects than they otherwise could on their own. In Newark, our financial partnership with the County of Essex allowed us to eliminate our city’s primary source of tap water lead contamination — a problem that had been left unaddressed for more than half a century.

Rather than relying on temporary solutions, Newark committed to removing every lead water service line in our city. Delivering on this promise, however, meant surmounting real financial limitations. For one thing, no state or federal money was immediately available, but the program needed to come at no cost to residents. Further, the city did not want to burden future generations with heavy debt commitments — trading an intergenerational environmental problem for a financial one. It was essential that every possible dollar made its way into the capital program itself rather than into interest.

Our financial partnership with Essex County was crucial to navigating these challenges and maximizing funds. The County’s Aaa bond rating allowed the city to borrow at a far more favorable rate than its Baa2 would have allowed, saving the city more than $9 million in interest over just two years. It also made it possible to replace more than 19,000 lead lines in little more than two years. Without the county’s financial partnership, we estimated the project would take between 8 and 10 years.

The baseline for a successful city-county financial partnership is a clear understanding of mutual benefit —especially financial benefit. From even the exploratory phase of this project, Essex County recognized Newark’s success, as well as its health and prosperity, meant success for the county as a whole.

In recent years, Newark and Essex County have benefitted from the growth of industry and investment, which has brought jobs and revenue to our region. Both jurisdictions understood that reliable utility infrastructure, such as the lead service replacement program, contributes to the continuing prosperity of the city and county.

Partnerships between cities and counties are not only powerful tools to spur growth but to right past wrongs and extend prosperity beyond where it presently reaches. Across the nation, jurisdictional limits often function to concentrate tax dollars and cordon off some communities from opportunity.

The discrepancy between Newark and Essex County’s bond rating is at least in part a reflection of an ugly national history of discriminatory policies. While Newark will pay for the lead replacements on its own, Essex County’s willingness to extend its favorable interest rate to the city helps to put past wrongs into the service of present good. In turn, Newark has sought to hire locally to at once bring environmental and economic benefits to its communities from the shared lead service line replacement program.

Right now, Newark’s lead line replacement program is nearing the end. By working at an unprecedented pace to remove more than 19,000 pipes in 26 months, Newark has created an acknowledged national model for communities to follow. The program has permanently solved a pressing environmental challenge for future generations in a financially sustainable manner — a truth made possible by our city-county partnership.

Especially as our nation recovers from the pandemic and its economic impacts, large-scale construction programs will not only help to fix our aging infrastructure but put America back to work. When wielded smartly, city-county financial partnerships can serve as a shortcut incentive to ensure we are using funding, innovation and opportunity and as a way to truly put the communities we serve first.

Ras J. Baraka is the mayor of the City of Newark.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-05-15 04:38:54 -0700