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Fixing flooding

I’m glad to see that the city is taking the issue of flooding and drainage seriously, as this is an increasingly urgent problem. It’s really one of infrastructure, which like everything else in this world eventually wears out and needs to be replaced. But as we know these things cost money, and some people don’t want to spend any.

The Department of Public Works and Engineering has estimated that the price tag on infrastructure improvements needed to control flooding in the next 20 years is in the neighborhood of $4 billion. Others say it is closer to $10 billion. Even spread over decades, that kind of money is not available amid sprawling budget problems that include unfunded pension liabilities, and a financially strapped Combined Utility System.

Beyond the high cost and policy ramifications, political pitfalls abound. Chief among them is a campaign that could be led by some of the very engineers who could benefit the most from the infrastructure boom a referendum would initiate.Other question marks include whether the proposal could be crowded out by another ballot proposition, or how voters would respond to what would almost certainly be a major tax increase.

“What a shock that an engineer or contractor would support a referendum for a bunch of infrastructure projects,” joked former City Councilman Bruce Tatro, a leading voice against a scuttled drainage fee plan during the Lee Brown administration.

Tatro said the central issue is not whether a bond referendum would be used to pay for infrastructure projects, but whether that referendum would lead to a tax increase.

“I think in this atmosphere, people would be very apprehensive to approve any amount of bond-letting that would require a tax increase,” he said.

Tatro’s non-responsive joke about engineers annoys me more than it should. He’s not claiming they’re wrong in their assessment, just that (heaven forfend!) some of them may stand to benefit from that assessment. Either this is in the public interest or it isn’t. If it is, then any self-interest on the part of the engineering community is a secondary concern. It’s still up to us to decide if this is something we want the city to do.

As for the concern that folks might not want to authorize bonds to deal with these problems because they might mean higher taxes, well, maybe, but what purpose does that kind of speculation serve? This won’t happen without a referendum, where people can express any reluctance they may have in the most direct manner possible, and before that there will plenty of opportunities for discussion and debate. Does Tatro, or anyone else, have a substantive criticism on the merits of the idea, or is this how it’s going to be? There are many things we need to be clear about. What, if anything, do we really need to be doing right now? What are the risks of doing nothing? What is the best way to pay for what we want to do? How do we prioritize our to-do list? The story does talk about some of the costs and hazards of the current situation, but we’re just scratching the surface right now. How people may feel about these things will depend to a large extent on how well they understand what needs to be done and why. Let’s please get on with that.

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4 Comments

  1. joe says:

    Not that I liked him to begin with – but I didn’t know Tatro helped stop a drainage fee plan during Brown’s term. My home flooded in Allison and Ike. Two of the worst experiences of my life – and I can thank Tatro for that.

  2. Noel Freeman says:

    I remember writing a guest post about this very issue a couple years ago, and I am glad to see it finally take hold and people getting committed to making real progress.

    When you consider streets as a secondary part of our drainage system, we end up running a deficiency of about $12 billion in our infrastructure. $4 billion is a good number for our primary drainage infrastructure alone, which shows just how far we have let things go over the past seven years (it was $3 billion back in 2003).

    No doubt the idea of a “drainage fee” is going to rub some folks the wrong way, but it is not just some generic fee – it is a stormwater utility, just like water and sewer. Every piece of property uses stormwater infrastructure in its own way and impacts it differently based on the percentage of impervious cover and how it connects to primary and secondary drainage systems. (I will spare the industry jargon and techno-speak)

    Across the United States thousands of municipalities employ stormwater utilities as a means of funding drainage infrastructure projects and are very successful. Cities a fraction of the size of Houston are outspending us almost two-to-one on drainage infrastructure. Their citizens tend to be remarkably supportive of stormwater utilities because they know exactly where their money is going, and they see the real effect when houses and businesses stop flooding.

    Houston desperately needs a stormwater utility if we are going to invest in our infrastructure to rescue it from its current condition. The key to success will be to create a separate enterprise fund like we have for water and wastewater. A stormwater utility can easily double the capital we have for investment in a way that employs basic fairness to property owners by taking their individual property conditions into account.

    I strongly encourage Houstonians to learn more about flooding and drainage and how we can make improvements. This is an important step in preparing Houston for the future. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap, but we need to do it.

  3. Robert Kane says:

    Noel,

    Much like when I was running as well, I forewarned residents , not to alarm them but to give them a heads up , this is something that will happen… not that we will have a choice. Just look at any major older city, I’m from Boston and our water bills increased dramatically to accomplish this as well as the cleaning of Boston Harbor.

    over 60% of the city is at or beyond the 50 yr life expectancy of what is BELOW the street, many yrs of neglect and a lack of planning has put us in a poor position…. it’s like never brushing your teeth then being surprised you have cavities and need dentures, something like that.

    Much like I posted here, the budget shortfalls both for the state and city are going to be STAGGERING. We can close our eyes, put our fingers in our ears and hum…. but it is coming and going to be very ugly…. the state has the fortunate position to have an uncle that is willing at times to throw money its way, the city…. not so lucky, the residents are the ones that will ultimately pay.

    Now lets not even talk about HPD and their contract this year along with their 50% staff capable of retiring… a whole story in and by itself.

    I’m not an alarmist… but things aren’t as rosey as we’ve been told

  4. [...] talked a lot about flooding and drainage issues, and about the possibility of water rate increases in Houston, but something that has not [...]

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