Bringing the ‘Community’ Into P3s Just Makes Sense for Green Infrastructure

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I often drive the “Greenway” here in the Northern Virginia area near Washington, D.C. and I lament that the tolls have skyrocketed over the years and is now over $4 per trip and headed to $5 based upon recent efforts by the operator of the system to adjust revenue rates.  This project is a transportation public-private partnership (P3) that held great promise on saving money and speeding construction time to a region that is constantly struggling with traffic conditions.  Studies have shown that the actual traffic volume turned out to be one-quarter of the predicted amount, and after initially dropping rates to encourage more volume (which led to only a modest increase), toll rates have been increasing at a rapid pace to the point now where there is a significant amount of public opposition and resentment on the level of these rates, as evident by a website dedicated to lowering these rates and even a protest folk song about this issue!

I bring all of this up not to further bash the Greenway project, but to illustrate the role of community in infrastructure projects, especially P3 projects.  Further, this highlights the strength of a new approach to implementing green infrastructure (GI) at a large scale referred to as “community based public-private partnerships” or CBP3s.  I have been spending the last year or so providing support on the development of a guide on this approach that was just released last Tuesday on Earth Day (April 22).  The guide, titled Community Based Public-Private Partnerships and Alternative Market-Based Tools for Integrated Green Stormwater Infrastructure: A Guide for Local Governments, is the first publication that provides an in-depth overview of the CBP3 approach.  This effort was not done in a vacuum at all – in fact, this product was a major team effort, including experts from the P3 sector, the military housing arena (I’ll get to this in a bit), legal and finance professionals and practitioners of GI.  A major salute should go out to a few people in particular, namely Dominique Lueckenhoff with EPA Region 3, John Picerne, the Founder/CEO of the Corvias group, Greg Cannito also with the Corvias Group, Tim Toohey with the Clean Water Partnership, and Larry Coffman formerly with Prince George’s County, Maryland.  I should also mention Neil Weinstein with the Low Impact Development Center, who brought me into this project.  Each and every one of these professionals provided a significant contribution not only to the development of this publication, but more significantly, to the development of the concept.  It is my belief that this new approach to implementing GI, as well as other environmental and social infrastructure, will become the norm in the future – this is truly a game changer in every sense of the word.

So what is the big deal with CBP3s?  Why are so many people watching the CBP3 established in Prince George’s County that will seek, for its first phase, to treat 2,000 acres of impervious cover with retention-based practices within three years at a unit cost that is half of what is often cited for urban GI retrofits.  Here’s the deal – this approach provides the promise of having your cake and eating it, too.  In a non-culinary context, this means that the CBP3 approach has the potential to deliver high volumes of sorely needed stormwater retrofits at a fraction of the “usual” cost and at an accelerated rate that the public itself could never meet and implemented in a way that places a premium on BMP performance – and most significantly, this approach places the community squarely in the center of the effort as the cornerstone of the program.

How does this approach promise so much?  Isn’t this all too good to be true?  The answer to these questions is “let me explain” and “no”.  The basis for this revelation is fairly easy to understand – we currently implement stormwater management and green infrastructure in the least efficient manner possible.  Consider that the stormwater field, in terms of water quality and stream protection, has really grown out of the flood control and drainage field.  As a close cousin to these more mature fields, stormwater programs are often relegated to ancillary status on many projects and programs.  However, there has been a recent trend towards appreciating the growing impacts of urban stormwater runoff on the health of our waters and the toll excess runoff takes on downstream infrastructure.  As regulations become more stringent based upon this identification of the significance of stormwater pollution, the need for an expansion in stormwater management infrastructure is growing – but up until this time, stormwater has been seen as a “mom and pop” or “boutique” industry with little consideration for trying to reduce efforts (and therefore costs) in a per unit metric.

A small industry can stay “boutique”; however, when the industry grows, there is a need to start treating the industry as a significant and maturing sector.  This is the threshold we’ve just crossed over with the Prince George’s County CBP3 program.  No other program in the country has boldly set out to address thousands of acres of impervious cover, and to do so at a lightning pace.  By scaling up the program by several orders of magnitude, the CBP3 program lead – the Clean Water Partnership – now has the ability to drive down costs through economies of scale the likes not seen before in the stormwater industry.  Further, this program does not use a traditional procurement process, which would require bids on design, then a separate bid process for construction, and the need to go through the environmental permitting process as well.  To contrast, the Clean Water Partnership has the ability to bypass these steps and start putting BMPs in the ground just as soon as they can cite and design them.  But doesn’t this come at a cost of quality?  No – in fact, the program is built around the premise of “availability payments”, which means that the CBP3 partner doesn’t get paid for their work until the infrastructure is “available” to perform as expected.

But I have digressed from my central point – that the CBP3 approach is focused on the community.  The most significant aspect of this is based upon a trusting and long-term relationship between the private sector partner with the public sector counterpart.  In the Greenway example, there was little of the community considered as evident by the high toll rates and significant public opposition.  In the CBP3 approach, there is a 30-50 year commitment and the private sector doesn’t just build the infrastructure and walk away – they provide ongoing O&M services through the duration of the project. Beyond this commitment to the public sector partner is the commitment made to engage with all the stakeholders in the community.  The role of faith-based organizations in developing grass-roots support in Prince George’s County was significant.  And most of all, the commitment to the community comes in through targets for local jobs – meaning that part of the fees to the Clean Water Partnership is based upon hitting goals for local jobs and small business involvement in the program.  Lastly, let’s not forget what it is that green infrastructure brings to the table beyond just water quality improvements:

– improved public health (through mitigation of heat island effect and air quality),

– enhanced social well-being (many studies illustrate the positive impacts of green space on urban dwellers – hey, why do you think Central Park in Manhattan is the most valuable piece of open real estate in the free world?),

– increased property values through hedonic effects (i.e., why do you think having a flat that overlooks Central Park costs so much more than those a few blocks away?), and

– is a catalyst for economic growth/revitalization (think of this as the opposite of the ‘broken window’ theory)

This is clearly an exciting time for the stormwater sector on many fronts – emerging technologies, evolving regulatory landscape, rising awareness – and now we can include the dimension of enhanced infrastructure investment in that list.  Going green in a big way has never had such promise both for the bottom-line as well as the value to communities.