Rutgers Research Professor: State Needs to Invest in Infrastructure

The infrastructure that carries water to your tap is aging and in need of repair. Groups including New Jersey Clean Water Council, New Jersey Future and the American Society for Civil Engineers worry utilities aren’t keeping up with necessary maintenance to water infrastructure. So all those water main breaks that close roads and cause problems may become more frequent. Rutgers research professor Dr. Daniel Van Abs told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that New Jersey is not paying the full cost for proper water infrastructure.

“Basically what it means that we’re not paying the full cost for our water,” said Van Abs. “We’re paying rates that are lower than what it really requires to maintain our water systems.”

Van Abs said that the state has failed to keep up with necessary water infrastructure for two reasons. He said that because of human nature and public policy, people don’t like to pay for what they can avoid. The second reason, according to Van Abs, is that the state does not have good benchmarks for what is a well run utility.

He also said that he does not know how much more utilities would need to charge rate payers to cover costs of maintenance and repairs because very few utilities in the state have a full sense of how bad the infrastructure is and what needs to be done over the next 20 years and what it would cost to do so.

Critics have said that the cost of living in New Jersey is already high and questioned how residents would be able to afford an increase in water prices. Van Abs said that it is an issue but that the flip side is more telling. He said that the state cannot do without water because without it, the economy folds. He also said that the state is in a situation where it cannot afford not to invest.

Currently a bill is passing through the legislature that would allow towns to privatize water systems. Van Abs said that it wouldn’t necessarily result in more investment in infrastructure.

“What it does is that it shifts the control of the system from the municipality to a private sector firm, but even so, you need to have a system that says to people you need to keep up the systems,” Van Abs said. “You need to understand the systems and you need to invest properly. So it won’t necessarily improve the situation.”

If a private company took over water management, Van Abs said that the Board of Public Utilities would be responsible for ensuring that rates do not go too high and that the board would cap that profit.

“The problem the Board of Public Utilities faces is that they again have trouble knowing exactly how much should be done. And therefore they have a hard time figuring out what rate is too low,” said Van Abs.

If repairs are not made to infrastructure, Van Abs said that more lines will break. He said that some cities have more than 100 line breaks in a single year and that over time more breaks could occur. If more breaks occur, people will end up paying more money for emergency repairs.