Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has introduced a bill to amend three federal acts and open the bidding process for government-assisted water infrastructure projects to all materials, including plastic.
Senate Bill 3121 calls for "maximum open and free competition" in procuring projects receiving federal tax dollars under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, Safe Drinking Act and Water Infrastructure and Innovation Act.
Introduced June 25 and referred to the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, the so-called Water Infrastructure Transparency Act is similar to legislation proposed in March by U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas). Babin introduced the Municipal Infrastructure Savings and Transparency Act to open the bidding process for publicly-funded projects, such as roads, bridges and dams in addition to water systems, to cost-effective building materials.
The federal legislation comes at a time the plastics industry and American Chemistry Council have been pushing for open bidding at the state level in Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina and South Carolina. ACC retained BCC Research to study pipe installation data nationally. One finding indicates increased competition decreases pipe capital costs by 32-35 percent.
However, no state bills have passed. Tony Radoszewski, president of the Plastics Pipe Institute, which is based in Dallas and represents many polyethylene pipe producers, blames strong lobbying by iron and concrete associations and their allies in state capitols and on Capitol Hill.
"These two industries have a long and storied presence in both state and federal agencies," Radoszewski said in an email. "That is to say they have a lot of friends, a lot of money and a lot of boots on the ground."
Opponents of open-competition policies say they would complicate bidding, slow down projects and lead to lawsuits. Some see the state and federal bills as attempts to use the government to promote plastic pipes.
Not so, say supporters of the policies. They contend neither federal bill calls for use of any specific material.
"Legacy material interests are trying to make it a plastics preference issue as they realize advanced materials — that is plastics — offer better long-term performance and economics, and that their monopoly in the pipe arena is being threatened," Radoszewski said. "There is also a ruse being employed by both iron and concrete concerns that such legislation would take away the authority of the design and specifying engineer to choose which material to use.
"The hypocrisy of this position is simply breathtaking since a closed competition environment is truly the only way an engineer loses the ability to choose," he said.
Adopting open competition policies at the federal level is a no-cost way to help state and local governments save billions of dollars to repair aging water infrastructure, according to Steve Russell, the ACC's vice president of plastics. Paul and Babin have demonstrated "real thought leadership" on the issue, he added.
"We urge Congress to include these sensible bills as part of legislation to repair our failing infrastructure and help communities across the country," Russell said in an email.
For the nation's water systems, aging infrastructure and quality concerns pose serious challenges. The American Water Works Association says an estimated $1 trillion will have to be spent during the next 25 years to meet needs for drinking water.
The American Society of Civil Engineers says it will cost $2 trillion over the next 10 years to improve the nation's infrastructure.
Open-competition policies offer two main benefits, Russell said.
"First, they help break through outdated regulatory barriers to let project managers consider all technologies and to select the most innovative and cost-effective solutions for the job instead of being mandated to use pre-selected materials," he said. "Second, open competition brings market forces to bear on project funding. Competition drives down prices, and a federal open competition policy could save over $370 billion on water infrastructure projects alone."
Babin's legislation, which applies broadly to infrastructure, could drive those savings even further, Russell added. It also has provisions to protect engineers and their professional judgment in choosing the materials they deem appropriate, he said.
If either Babin's or Paul's bill passes, open bidding would remain tied to federal funding only. Overall, federal spending is a "surprisingly small component" of water infrastructure spending, Russell said. He pointed to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Water Council, which says 98 percent of the financing to build water supply and sewer/wastewater infrastructure is made by local government. In the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget, for example, Clean Water and Drinking Water Revolving Funds only totaled about $2.7 billion in fiscal year 2018.
"However, these federal dollars spread widely as they flow into state coffers and local projects, and the policy requirements can have an outsized impact," Russell said.