Infrastructure Salvation

04/28/2015 06:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015

The failure to upgrade the nation's aging infrastructure has hit home -- literally. Several months ago, a Washington D.C. sewer line burst under our street, sending untreated waste water into our basement. It cost a pretty penny to decontaminate the space, so I sought restitution from the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DCWSA).

My petition was denied on the grounds that the DCWSA was not notified in advance of the faulty line. Hence, the agency took the position it was not negligent, and thus, not liable for damages under existing law.

Understandably, I was furious. As interpreted, the law was a de facto granting of blanket immunity to the agency, regardless of fault. How would the public know in advance of the location of a defective pipeline? Monitoring and maintaining the system's condition is the agency's job, yet such toothless laws from the consumer's perspective are commonplace around the country. They are on the books to protect cash-strapped municipalities against inundation of citizens' damage claims resulting from the numerous malfunctions of decaying waste water systems.

While I remain irate at being financially responsible for the municipal infrastructure's failure, I recognize the logic of the public policy. The sad fact is that most cities with extensive sewer lines lack the resources to upgrade the systems fast enough to keep pace with the age-related erosion.

According to a report by the National Association of Water companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, nearly half of the nation's water and sewer lines are in bad shape. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that at least 23,000 unintended discharges of raw sewage from ruptured lines occur annually. One could reasonably argue that without some degree of statutory immunity, many municipalities could go bankrupt.

Unfortunately, that leaves members of the public such as myself stuck with paying the bill when things go wrong. My guess is that plenty of homeowners are unaware of their potential liability. They would be jolted to know they would be responsible for repairing leaky sewer lines leading into their domiciles as well as for cleaning up the ensuing contamination.

In my case, the justification for DCWSA's exemption, and begrudgingly a legitimate one, is that it is supposed to oversee 1,900 miles of sewer lines crisscrossing the nation's capital. More than half of these pipes were installed before 1936 and some date back to the Civil War. With the funding at its disposal, mostly from consumer fees, the best that DCWA can do is replace one percent of the aging system annually. This seems excruciatingly slow, yet is double the national average.

DCWSA's plight is mirrored in many cities around the nation and is not just limited to sewer and water lines. Bridges, roads, the electrical grid and recreational facilities in national parks are falling into disrepair at an alarming rate.

That is why we need an infusion of federal money to restore the nation's infrastructure to good working order, not to mention all the jobs that would be created. (Shockingly, our nation has a mediocre ranking internationally in regard to infrastructure, even as federal spending has been steadily declining.)

All the more reason to treat seriously President Obama's request for a long term allocation of $478 billion in infrastructure spending (to be paid for by a 14 percent tax on corporate overseas earnings). Better yet is Senator Bernie Sanders' (I-Vermont) proposal to invest $1 trillion in federal money on infrastructure between now and 2022.

Such expenditures would certainly reinvigorate the country and go a long way towards sparing individual citizens from shouldering the tab.