Not just Flint - even Vermont needs water system upgrades

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Civil engineers have been warning us for decades that our nation's infrastructure is in desperate need of a major investment to fix crumbling roads and bridges, inadequate public transit systems, and failing wastewater facilities.

According to the 2017 report card released this week by the American Society of Civil Engineers, U.S. infrastructure earned a D+, meaning it's "poor and at risk" due to chronic under investment, MarketWatch reports.

Dating back to 1998, the U.S. has received a subpar grade in each of the last six reports.

Rails was the only sector to earn a B due to $27 billion in improvements by the freight railroads. Ports, bridges and solid waste each received a C+. The remaining dozen categories — aviation, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, roads, schools, transit and wastewater — were in the D range.

While Vermont is in a better position than the nation as a whole, crucial improvements must be made to the state's water infrastructure, according to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who held a meeting earlier this month with local, state and federal officials to discuss Vermont's water infrastructure needs. Sanders noted that 2 percent of Vermonters drink water from a system with known health violations, and last year more than 150 overflows released millions of gallons of untreated wastewater and storm water into Lake Champlain and its tributaries. According to some estimates, Vermont will have to invest $510 million over the next 20 years to upgrade small community water systems, alone.

"Clean, safe, and reliable drinking water and wastewater treatment are essential to economic development, public health and our environment," said Sanders, who serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Without adequate water infrastructure, towns can't attract businesses. Municipalities cannot deliver safe drinking water. And overburdened wastewater plants will continue to discharge sewage into waterways."

Earlier this year, Sanders helped draft a $1 trillion proposal to rebuild our nation's crumbling infrastructure. The "Blueprint to Rebuild America's Infrastructure" includes funding for water systems as well as roads, bridges, railways, broadband networks, VA hospitals, schools and airports throughout the United States.

"When we rebuild our infrastructure, we rebuild the middle class because we can create 15 million decent-paying jobs in all areas of life: in urban America, in rural America, for all of our people," Sanders said.

The only problem with the infrastructure bill, of course, is that it undoubtedly faces an uphill fight in the Republican-controlled Congress. The GOP seems to object to any and all nonmilitary spending, even though safety improvements here at home will save more American lives than all of our foreign skirmishes combined.

Ironically, Sanders may have an unlikely ally in President Donald Trump, who during the campaign trail touted infrastructure improvements as one of his top priorities. Earlier this week, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao promised more details in the coming weeks of a promised $1 trillion in new investments over the next decade, the Washington Post reports.

Chao said Trump's plan will reflect a "broad and inclusive" definition of infrastructure.

"It not only recognizes traditional infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, railroads, inland waterways and ports," she said. "It may also potentially include energy, water, broadband and veterans hospitals as well."

Sounds like a dream come true for Sanders and his Democratic allies who broadly share infrastructure investments as a priority. However, there is one major difference that could derail this common goal and send it to the dustbin of Washington gridlock where so many other worthy efforts languish: Democrats prefer direct federal spending for these projects, while the Trump Administration is advocating an infrastructure package that relies heavily on state, local and private money. Only about $200 billion would come from direct federal funding.

The details of Trump's plan are still unclear at this point, but we have concerns about the limited federal support. Many cash-strapped states and municipalities simply don't have the money for major infrastructure projects without the help of federal grants. And relying too heavily on private investment opens the door to cronyism, corruption and abuse of taxpayer money — especially if the Trump Administration weakens federal oversight as it has been inclined to do on other regulations that get in the way of profit for big business.

Still, allowing our nation's infrastructure to continue to deteriorate while politicians argue about different funding philosophies is unacceptable. The two sides must find common ground on this issue sooner rather than later. The problem has already gone unresolved for too long.

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