Down the drain

Down the drain

Infrastructure needs a cheering section

infrastructure degrades slowly, indeed imperceptibly. The bus arrives a little less frequently; the subway breaks down a bit more often; the water pipe loses water through leakage; the sewer system adds a bit more pollution to the environment. For the most part, there is no political consequence from a deteriorating infrastructure.

In contrast, investment in infrastructure occurs episodically, with direct political consequences. It often requires a vote to increase taxes or fees, which go into effect immediately. Yet the investments that result from that vote take years to be felt in improved services or facilities. Those who vote “yes” get no credit. Indeed, they are likely to be assigned blame and criticized for raising taxes or fees by a public that does not trust they are necessary.

Kevin Harrington, the former president of the Massachusetts Senate, once gave a detailed description of the mechanics of this dynamic on Beacon Hill. Harrington was elected in 1959, when the Metropolitan District Commission was in charge of the region’s water and sewer system. At the time, all MDC expenditures approved by the Legisla­ture would be assigned to the cities and towns in the district and collected from the public through property taxes. Harrington related how engineers from the agency would come before the Legisla­ture’s Natural Resources Committee seeking money because the plants taking care of sewage were obsolete.

“And then politics raised its ugly head,” Har­rington said when I sat down with him more than a decade ago to try to make sense of how the political establishment deals with infrastructure projects. “It’s so simple, so plain, and so sad—the representatives and senators that were inside of the MDC district would come to those of us who were not in the district, and they would say, ‘Please don’t vote for this money. Our local mayors, our city councilors, and alderman and selectman don’t want their property taxes to go up.’ So I would say in my stupidity, ‘Of course, I’ll vote with you.’”

The metropolitan area transit system is the current poster child for this built-in dynamic that leads us to put off infrastructure investments. The MBTA is severely underfunded with regard to maintenance and upgrades of the regional bus and subway system. On the Orange Line, 120 cars built between 1979 and 1981 need to be replaced. On the Red Line, 74 cars from 1969 are well past their useful life. More than half of the MBTA’s 82 commuter rail locomotives date to the 1970s, and nearly all are at or past the manufacturer’s recommended lifespan of 25 years.

Public officials, having depleted one-time financial fixes, lurch about for long-term funding solutions, while the system deteriorates more each year. Michael Widmer, president of the Massa­chusetts Taxpayers Foundation, describes this as an “exploding structural gap between revenues and expenses.” Talk of system enhancement is at a stand­still, even though lines like the Green Line need to be expanded to handle the expected travel-to-work demand of the coming decade. Beyond transit, there are also insufficient funds available to maintain the recently completed Central Artery and Ted Williams Tunnel.

this is not a new phenomenon in our state. Decades of underinvestment by the MDC led US District Court Judge A. David Mazzone in 1985 to order a substantial upgrade to wastewater treatment facilities to undo years of neglect and end the pollution of Boston Harbor. Michael Deland, then the regional administrator of the EPA, called the chronic underinvestment that necessitated the harbor clean­up “the most expensive public policy mistake in the history of New England.”

Over a decade ago, after I left my position as executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to teach infrastructure planning and development at MIT, I researched the state’s largest infrastructure failure. Many of the people I interviewed are now deceased, but their words live on as a record of the past that has value today.

The story offers two lessons for the future. First, as Deland suggested, if we neglect infrastructure, we will always pay more in the long run. But an equally important—and far less widely appreciated—lesson is that building a political constituency for infrastructure investments is a job that must be taken on by the public agencies themselves, a role often neglected by those appointed to run those agencies.

The MDC sewer system was once considered an “important advance in sanitary engineering,” meriting a front-page story in Scientific American in 1887. This was a public health investment that, by eliminating cholera and typhoid epidemics as well as terrible odors along the Charles River and elsewhere, helped fuel the economic growth of the region. The system was upgraded and expanded over the decades, culminating in 1968 with construction of the largest component of the wastewater treatment system, the Deer Island sewage treatment plant. But by the early 1980s it was showing its age in ways that were impossible to ignore.

When I spoke with him over a decade ago, former MDC Commissioner Bill Geary gave me a sense of the state of the system in 1983 by describing the view of Deer Island from his office in downtown Boston. He said the diesel engines that ran the sewage pumps were breaking down and spewing diesel fuel into the air. “There were ponds of diesel fuel on the roof of the building, and then the stack would get so hot it would ignite the roof,” he said. “I cannot tell you how many fires I used to see from my office. I’d look over and see the sky was black and say, ‘Deer Island is on fire again.’ The whole system was on the verge of collapse, and at any point, a catastrophic failure could occur.”

That catastrophe occurred on Mother’s Day in 1983. A heavy rubber gasket in one of the inlet sewage lines broke, with the butterfly valve leading to the number seven pump in an open position, discharging millions of gallons of wastewater into the pump level of the treatment plant, 12 stories below ground. The sewage reached a level of about 40 feet above the floor, and the pumps had to be shut down. Millions of gallons of sewage were discharged into Boston Harbor and the Charles and Mystic rivers, as the upstream headworks facilities in Chelsea and Boston were forced to “choke back” the flow of sewage that would otherwise head through tunnels to Deer Island.

Steve Kruger, the plant manager, stood on a metal stairway above the flood and gave instructions to MDC scuba divers who, using their hands and ropes to guide them, found their way under the dark water to conduct the repairs. Junior engineer Charles Lombardi witnessed the divers washing their mouthpieces in the raw sewage —the natural and unconscious act of scuba divers in a pool of water. Geary summarized the situation for the divers, who suffered terrible diseases for months and years to come: “They did the unthinkable and accomplished the impossible.”

The MDC itself failed to make a persuasive case for additional funding. That the plant suffered from inadequate budgets and staffing from day one was no secret to those at the plant or at the MDC, or in other parts of state government. As Dianne Dumanoski recounted in a three-day series in the Boston Globe in 1982, the breakdowns were “tragically predictable—a result of well-known equipment and staffing problems that had plagued the plants. With monotonous regularity, these problems had been cited again and again in special studies and dozens of treatment plant inspection reports over the last decade.”

The MDC’s inability to secure even the bare minimum of operating funds was sometimes the result of budgetary pressures but often legislative disinterest. Lawmakers were more interested in projects important to their constituents. As Howard Whitmore, who served as an MDC commissioner in the late 1960s, told me: “Every member wanted a skating rink, and they got quite a few.”

But the agency itself often failed to make a persuasive case for additional funding. Charles Foster, Gov. Francis Sargent’s Secretary of Environmental Affairs until 1974, noted a disconnect between the agency’s needs and its budget requests. “The MDC people were so good at putting chewing gum in the holes and things like that, that everybody said, ‘Let’s go on that way for another 10 years,’” he told me.

The situation persisted through the early 1980s. John Bewick, Gov. Ed King’s Secretary of Environmental Affairs, said the agency did a poor job at selling itself. “They could never articulate the case,” he told me. Then Bewick hit on the real issue: “Strangely enough, the MDC did not have a strong political constituency.”

There can be a constituency for maintaining and improving infrastructure, but there has to be an informed public that is alert to the consequences of a degradation in that infrastructure. How could that not have been the case here, where raw sewage was being discharged into coastal waterways that were sites for recreation, fisheries, and commerce? Where were the natural constituencies? The short answer: They had not been engaged.

That included the press, which has a lot of power to set the public agenda though its coverage selection. Tom Winship, long-time editor of the Boston Globe, told me that, before their 1982 series, the paper had simply not paid attention to the problem. “We at the Globe didn’t get turned on to the environment or any other regulatory laxes that were existing—such as the MDC. We just didn’t care about raw sewerage.”

Doug Foy, who took over as head of the Conservation Law Foundation in 1977, and who eventually filed the lawsuit leading to the Boston Harbor Cleanup, admitted he was late to the issue, “We didn’t pay any attention to Boston Harbor until Dianne Dumanoski wrote her series in the Globe in 1982. That certainly got our attention. I suppose we can take some of the blame for not waking up earlier.”

But the major reason the MDC did not have a constituency for its own infrastructure needs was because it did not try to create one. “The MDC never really had an information delivery service as part of it,” said Foster, the environmental affairs secretary in the Sargent administration. “They were so busy doing the functions that they forgot about translating the functions into terms a constituency could understand. The MDC really did not use its natural constituency base.”

Dumanoski told me public infrastructure managers need some PR savvy to draw the attention that is necessary to build public support for their efforts. “If I were an agency head running a sewer system and I wanted to prompt the press to write stuff that would help me build a constituency to get the money to repair my system, I would have to be willing to make an issue of things or grandstand in a certain political way to get attention when they were trying to cut back on budgets,” she said. “If you had somebody who was politically astute and cared, there might have been specific times when you could have gotten coverage.”

in the end, it took a federal court order to do what state government had failed to do and get Boston Harbor cleaned up. That is hardly a public policy model for how we ought to ensure that attention and resources are paid to public infrastructure needs. It may be hard to accept the idea that government agencies themselves should work to develop political constituencies that will support their efforts. But infrastructure may be an important exception. Infra­structure is not policy. It is not a social service program. It is physical stuff in the ground on which we all rely, on which the health of our economy depends, and it only gets built and maintained when it has been designed, financed, and put out for bid.

Though one hopes that we learn from our mistakes, I fear we are repeating today the same shortsighted approach that cost us so dearly with regard to our water and sewer infrastructure and the horrific despoliation of Boston Harbor. Well-intentioned public servants are tip-toeing around the need for major investments in the regional transit system, using terms like “reform before revenue” to delay action. But the delays that result from the lack of investment are substantial and growing. The leaders of the relevant agencies must lay out the consequences of these delays—unsafe equipment, delayed bus and train service, unpleasant riding conditions—to force action by the body politic.

The public expects infrastructure to exist and be in service when they need it. But you cannot expect them to think about its maintenance when they flush the toilet, or get on a bus, or go through a turnstile unless those charged with running an infrastructure agency view themselves as the champions for its mission. Unless they are skilled in tapping the latent constituency that exists in the community, their facilities will inevitably go down the drain.

Meet the Author
Paul F. Levy was executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority from 1987 to 1992 and chairman of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities from 1983 to 1987. He was adjunct professor at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning from 1992 to 1998.