Cities struggle to interest the public in vital public works

As Oklahoma City Mayor Patience Latting will tell you, nothing prompts a homeowner to call the mayor - at any hour of day or night - so much as the discovery that the basement has been flooded with sewage.

But without such graphic, firsthand experience, most citizens find it hard to get worked up over the state of disrepair of city sewer, water, road, and bridge systems.

In fact, most mayors gathered here for the National League of Cities (NLC) Congress will tell you the very mention of meeting such needs generally elicits a giant yawn.

Mayor Richard Caliguiri of Pittsburgh says it was only when he closed a dilapidated but major bridge in his city that local citizens really began to pay attention to his warnings that it posed a public safety hazard. Even then, he says, some suspected he closed the bridge for political or other reasons.

This lack of public support for maintenance, repairs, and construction of the network that holds together each of the nation's cities is the key reason why such networks need a multibillion-dollar infusion. Rejection by voters of bond issues often needed to support the work is but one problem. Mayors, facing tight budgets and the need to maintain public safety agencies such as police and fire, in desperation often put capital improvements on the back burner. Many have a ''wish list'' of projects they somehow never get around to tackling.

Nationally, infrastructure investment by all levels of government is down 30 percent over the last 15 years. Dr. Pat Choate, an economist with TRW Inc. and author of ''America in Ruins,'' argues that ''massive underinvestment'' in roadways and bridges, and in rail, water, and sewer lines is a major barrier to the nation's economic recovery. By failing to maintain such facilities, he says, ''we are literally squandering a 100-year legacy of public investment.''

By most widely accepted estimates, up to two out of every five bridges in the country and half of all the rails and roadbeds in the Conrail system have decayed to the point where they should be rebuilt or closed.

An estimated one-fifth of the nation's 42,500-mile interstate highway system needs repair. But states, which receive about 90 percent of the construction cost from Washington but no money for maintenance, have been reluctant to shell out the necessary dollars. Experts estimate the repair cost for all other roads and highways that need fixing at $500 billion - more money than all levels of government spent on public works during the last 10 years.

A critical first step for most cities, as well as the federal government, is to list the public facilities they have, assess their condition, and set priorities - complete with cost estimates on future needs. Pittsburgh is one of several cities that have made such a survey. Over the last four years, the city has repaired or replaced 21 bridges and more than half of its streets.

Aside from supporting bond issues, taxpayers must become more intimately involved in capital planning and must understand better the need for public works improvements, experts say.

One successful technique many city leaders have tried is appointing a citizens' advisory committee to participate in assessing capital needs. In Oklahoma City, where such a board was established, board members also have been asked to suggest ways of financing improvements.

Dade County, Fla., chose an aggressive route to get the message across to residents that it needed a new monorail system. Following a major TV and newspaper ad campaign, voters approved by a strong margin a $350 million bond issue for construction. Similarly, Cleveland won a recent local income tax hike after pledging that half of the increase would be used to renovate the city's capital plant.

But even with public support, finding the money to maintain public facilities remains an critical problem. Some experts say the only way to protect funds for the job is to set up an independent operating authority with separate pricing and bonding powers. Others say an annual small capital budget rather than a ''wish list'' is the only orderly way. In a few cases, states have assumed the financial responsibility - particularly with schools.

In the past, half of all public works expenses have been paid by Washington, but that percentage is almost sure to drop. But Dr. Choate and other experts in field argue that a multiyear, national capital budget is necessary. Choate calls it a vital ''supply-side investment.''

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