EDITORIAL: If You Build It, They Will Pay… Part One

U.S. Congressman Scott Tipton visited Pagosa Springs yesterday, April 11… and included in his tour of our rural town, a presentation at the Archuleta County Republican Women’s luncheon.

As a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Tipton has to run for re-election every two years in order to retain his seat, which essentially means he is constantly running for office. He’s been successful at winning those elections in this fairly conservative area of Colorado, since 2010. So these occasional visits to the rural communities within the 3rd Congressional District could be considered simply a necessary part of doing business.

The Congressman also sat down with the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners for an hour-long chat about subjects dear to the commissioners’ hearts, including federal PILT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) funding, possible federal money for the repair of Piedra Road, broadband, renewable energy, the failed “geothermal power” initiative, proposed new County facilities, and funding for senior services.

During the hour-long conversation, approximately one minute was spent discussing affordable housing… much to my personal disappointment.

The three Archuleta County commissioners pose for a photo with Congressman Scott Tipton, April 11, 2017.

Representative Tipton mostly sat and listened, but he did mention a couple of times that Congress is currently entering “Appropriations Season” and that his office would appreciate a wish-list from the County, in case some of the community’s needs might fit into a 2017 federal appropriations request.

As noted, much of the discussion was focused on “infrastructure.” Electricity. Broadband internet. Geothermal greenhouses. A new multi-million-dollar jail…

Roads…

Things that every American community depends on, even in the backwoods of Colorado. So let’s chat a while about “infrastructure.”

Elle Hempen, CEO of The Atlas Marketplace, and Shalini Vajjhala, CEO of re:focus partners, came together on the Meeting of the Minds website to write about innovative financing models for addressing America’s deteriorating infrastructure. That article, dated yesterday, April 11, begins:

With every new Administration in Washington there are always sweeping promises about improving the nation’s infrastructure. Since the last recession, these promises have become inextricably linked with talk about mobilizing private finance.

In 2009, after the immediate impacts of the recession abated, it was clear that cities, dependent on tax income, were going to be cash strapped for years to come. Which means while our infrastructure was getting worse, the money to fix it or upgrade it was getting harder and harder to find.

This realization — that we’ve dug ourselves into a hole that we can’t afford to dig ourselves out of — really took no one by surprise. We’ve been sliding into this unfortunate situation for decades. But recently, it kicked off a national conversation of sorts, about how private capital might fill the public financing gap through instruments like “public-private partnerships.”

The article continues:

While there have been a handful of one-off examples and exciting new models, nearly a decade of talk about financing has not translated into substantially larger or speedier private investments in infrastructure.

Why? Because the mantra “if you build it, they will come” unfortunately doesn’t translate to infrastructure. More often, if you built it right, no one will notice.

First off, we should settle on a definition of the word “infrastructure,” because it’s going to be the focus of this Daily Post article series. In particular, we’re going to be looking at the troubled infrastructure here in Archuleta County, while also taking a wider, philosophical view of the issue.

If we want to use the term to align with the whole, big problem, we might use the definition of “infrastructure” suggested by the American Society of Civil Engineers, when they published a recent report called “2017 Infrastructure Report Card.” In that report, the ASCE chose to address 16 areas of America’s infrastructure that civil engineers typically earn their living designing and analyzing. Here are the 16 types, displayed as icons:

And now, in order of appearance, with the report card grades awarded by the ASCE:

Aviation (D)
Bridges (C+)
Dams (D)
Drinking Water (D)
Energy (D+)
Hazardous Waste (D+)
Inland Waterways (D)
Levees (D)
Ports (C+)
Public Parks (D+)
Rail (B)
Roads (D)
Schools (D+)
Solid Waste (C+)
Transit (D-)
Wastewater (D+)

The overall grade awarded to America’s infrastructure? D+. 

Clearly, the American Society of Civil Engineers has a sense that we have a lot of work ahead of us, if we hope to bring our nation’s infrastructure up to at least a B-.

And the estimated cost to bring our country’s infrastructure into the 21st century? The ASCE report suggests a figure: $4.6 trillion.

I’m sharing the above “report card” grades to demonstrate that our infrastructure deficiencies here in rural Archuleta County are perhaps no worse than what the ASCE found, looking at the nation as a whole. And we’re fortunate, perhaps, that at least some of the types of infrastructure mentioned in the ASCE report do not exist in Archuleta County.  We have very little in the way of “Hazardous Waste” here in our community, for example, and no “Inland Waterways,” “Levees,” “Ports,” or “Rails.”

Our drinking water is pretty decent — if you don’t count the fact that the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District is losing up to 40 percent of its treated water to system leaks — and our public parks are reasonably well maintained, as is our local airport. Now that the Town of Pagosa Springs has spent $8 million on a new sewer pipeline, our wastewater infrastructure seems under control, at least temporarily.

The Mountain Express transit system just purchased three new buses. Three of our four public school buildings recently got new roofs.

Too many families are required to use propane as a heating fuel, due to the limited reach of the natural gas company, Black Hills Energy… but I guess propane is better than chopping wood.

We have a local company — Renewable Forest Energy — that could be providing maybe a quarter of the community’s electricity, but electricity conglomerate Tri-State Transmission & Generation has thus far successfully blocked that project.

And then, we have… The Roads.

Tomorrow, we’ll listen to a fascinating conversation that took place yesterday, April 11, at the County administration building, between the Board of County Commissioners and our Public Works staff — Director Susan Goebel-Canning and County Engineer Bob Perry.

Read Part Two…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.