Florida’s bursting pipes and expanding highways tell a tale of infrastructure priorities gone wrong

What happens when policymakers prioritize highway ribbon cutting ceremonies over repairs to critical infrastructure?

Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

A recent Guardian article reported that, in the last five years, 1.6 billion gallons of sewage spilled in Florida, in nearly 14,000 separate incidents. These sewage spills are every bit as gross and as dangerous as you’d imagine, threatening human health, wrecking ecosystems, and causing toxic algal blooms. Sewage spills also contribute to water quality problems at Florida’s famous beaches, 100 of which had advisories for unsafe bacteria levels in 2019.1

Florida’s epidemic of leaky pipes is what you get when you combine aging sewage infrastructure with increased flooding caused by global warming. The Miami Herald recently wrote that Fort Lauderdale’s recent spills, the worst in Florida’s history, were “thanks to a crumbling system of pipes and pumps that have been mismanaged for decades and are unprepared for the increasing effects of sea level rise.” And in June, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed millions of dollars in sewage infrastructure spending from the state budget.

At every level of government, funding has fallen far short of what’s needed to keep sewage where it belongs. But it’s not as if Florida has simply decided to forego infrastructure spending altogether. There’s one area where the state seems to have more than enough money: Pavement. In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that Florida, along with many other states, was “pumping more money into transportation projects,” new roads in particular, and that Florida was planning to spend $10 billion in fiscal year 2019 alone.

A lot of that road money is going to wrongheaded projects that at best are a poor investment of public dollars, and at worst could do lasting damage. In our last Highway Boondoggles report, we wrote about an $800 million highway project in Miami that would lead to more driving and more pollution. Florida is also moving forward with an insane statewide highway project that could cost upwards of $20 billion, while literally threatening the Florida panther with extinction.

And even as these highways vacuum up money that could be better spent, they make water problems worse by paving over open spaces that can filter and absorb rainwater, and replacing that natural infrastructure with impervious surfaces that create more runoff pollution.

It’s tough to think of a better illustration of misplaced infrastructure priorities than overflowing sewers next to unnecessary new highways. But Florida is far from alone, and its problems aren’t just the fault of state policymakers. In recent years the federal government has failed to provide states with adequate funding for repairing broken down sewage systems, and the EPA estimates that nationwide there is a nearly $300 billion need for investment in wastewater infrastructure. Meanwhile, around the U.S. tens of billions of dollars are spent each year on absurd and damaging highway expansions. And ill-advised spending isn’t limited to roads: The U.S continues to invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure that will not only dig us deeper into our already-deep global warming hole, but will also stick us with left-over equipment made irrelevant by a transition to clean energy.

Last year, Frontier Group released Blueprint for Tomorrow, which described a better approach to infrastructure policy, one focused less on “creating ribbon-cutting opportunities” and more on creating a “stronger, healthier and more sustainable America for generations to come.” The principles outlined in that report — like “fix it first,” and “focus infrastructure investment on what matters” — are built on common sense. And it’s principles like these that Florida and other states should be following now, more than ever, in the midst of enormous environmental and fiscal challenges.

Of course, not every choice will be as simple as the matter of choosing clean water over damage to the natural world. But when a choice that simple does come along, let’s not get it wrong.

Photo: Sewage spill in Fort Lauderdale. Credit: City of Fort Lauderdale via Facebook

  1. Based on EPA data reported through the BEACON 2.0 “Beach Actions” report.↩︎

Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

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