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Infrastructure upgrades in Detroit will depend on what projects get financial priority

Posted at 4:50 PM, Dec 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-16 17:34:52-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Soon, federal dollars will be flowing into cities and counties across the country in the wake of President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure law.

How that cash will be spent and what projects get priority will often be left to local government agencies.

WXYZ headed to Detroit to discover what’s behind that process, and some of the hidden hurdles in the way.

“About a mile of this type of work is about a $ 1 million,” said Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

A replacement water main in Detroit would be just a small drop in the city’s infrastructure bucket.

But this planned project and those that come after are crucial steps forward to repair an aging underground labyrinth and stave off situations.

“When we’re talking about that difference between maintenance and emergency repairs, what is the difference in cost there?” WXYZ’s Brian Abel asked.

“It’s huge. It can be as much as 50% cost. When we can schedule the work and we’ve already competitively bid the work,” Brown said. “It’s not an emergency and you’re not paying the premium time to workers.”

Michigan’s concrete infrastructure has long been a focal point.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was elected after a “fix the damn roads” campaign.

Bridges and roads are among the worst in the country. Until Flint, water infrastructure was often overlooked.

“Roads have been such a big conversation, right? Do you feel like that eclipses the water and sewage infrastructure issues at all?” Abel asked.

“Everyday, all day. Yeah, absolutely. Bridges, roads, you see them. The only asset that you really see from DWSD are fire hydrants,” Brown said.

Flint shifted that dynamic.

June flooding in and around Detroit elevated it to $237 million of damage to the city’s water and sewer system.

And now, Benton Harbor is in the midst of a lead-in-the-water crisis, leading Michigan leaders to action.

In an executive directive, Whitmer last month highlighted Michigan's plan to replace in the next 20 years every lead service line in the state. That’s currently more than 450,000 homes — the third highest of any state.

As many as 100,000 are in Detroit.

“We anticipate we’re going to need about $30 million a year just to replace 5%,” Brown said.

Now, there’s no major city in America that has been able to replace 5,000 lines in one year. But we’re going to be able to get that done. I’m confident we will,” Brown said.

“And that’s before any of the federal dollars come in?” Abel asked.

“No. We need those federal dollars. I cannot pass $430 million a year in rate increases to our customer base. So, we’re going to need help from our state or the federal government,” Brown said.

That help is expected to trickle into Michigan starting this spring.

Billions of dollars would include:

  • $7.2 billion for roads
  • $563 million for bridges
  • $1 billion for public transit
  • $110 million for EV stations
  • $100 million for rural high-speed internet
  • $1.3 billion for water infrastructure

“How do you choose what projects are tackled and when?” Abel asked.

“That’s a good question because it’s not always the age of the pipe. We do an assessment of our system, and we want to know what type of soil it is in. How old is the pipe? How many previous breaks have we had? And then we score it, and we identify the sections of the city that need the work,” Brown said.

“So, it's not necessarily the age of the pipe. The material that it’s built out is a big factor also,” Abel asked.

“It’s going to mean that economic development, you’re going to have a strong water and sewer department that can supply services to not only the community but the businesses that are popping up all over the city of Detroit,” Brown said.

“So, I think Detroiters can feel confident that they have arguably some of the best water in the world and we’re going to keep it that way,” Brown continued.

So much of Detroit’s water and sewer projects that the infrastructure law will fund have already been identified in its master plan.

When that cash comes in, the bond money that would’ve funded it, will be redirected to new projects.