Jim Steinberg, Staff Writer
Posted: 07/09/2011 10:19:24 PM PDT

RIALTO – The public disclosure that Rialto’s water system needs $42 million in upgrades and renovations is symptomatic of a national trend that civil engineers have long called alarming.

The nation as a whole faces more than $2.2 trillion worth of infrastructure repairs in areas ranging from bridges to dams to drinking water and wastewater systems, roads and transit systems, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Rialto residents riled against a proposal by New Jersey-based American Water Works Co. Inc. to direct and finance those renovations. The outsourcing effort failed to win the council votes needed for passage.

Particularly onerous were the rate increases – more than 80percent in two years – American Water proposed to fund those repairs.

An aversion to rate increases is a key reason much of America’s infrastructure is crumbling, said Richard G. Little, director of USC’s Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy.

Politicians are reluctant to push for set-asides to cover maintenance and upgrades because they don’t want to upset their constituents with higher rates, Little said.

Rialto has not raised its wastewater rates in 10 years and water rates in seven years.

“We may pride ourselves in not having rate increases, but this is not something to be proud of,” Little said, referring to a lack of expenditures for renovations.

But that aversion to rate increases is the reason many water delivery systems across the country sell their product at an “artificially low” prices, he said.

Most Rialto residents who spoke at two public comment sessions prior to the City Council’s decision to reject a public/private partnership with American Water on June 28 recognized the need for rate increases.

“The water rates are going to have to be raised,” said Brenda Parker, a longtime Rialto resident in an interview last week.

“(City) councils in the past neglected their responsibility to the people and unfortunately this council got stuck with the problem,” Parker said.

The main objection voiced by Rialto city residents during these hearings was the rapidity of rate increases and the philosophical objections to contracting out a city department to a private sector firm.

Little said solutions for municipal infrastructure neglect has gotten more painful, because state and federal governments are no longer in bailout modes, he said.

Rialto resident Dennis Barton said last week that raising rates are even more difficult in poor economic times like now, when many have lost their jobs or are working fewer hours.

And a compounding factor to facing the national infrastructure problems at the federal level is the emergence of a political belief that governments should not receive any additional funds from the people for any reason, he said.

Small utilities are particularly guilty of raising rates periodically to cover maintenance problems, but then ignore the problem for some time, Batton said.

“It’s a classic definition of insanity,” he said.

Said Little: “Putting off the pain doesn’t make the problem go away.”

Unless infrastructure needs are addressed soon, the United States “is in danger of becoming a second-tier nation,” he said.

To read entire story, click here.