The infrastructure debate is about to take center stage in Congress – where the issue of spending federal funds to replace deteriorating state water pipe systems will soon come into focus. But if the iron pipe lobby has its way, cities will be forced to use ductile iron pipe for these federally-funded projects, despite competing materials that exist which are less expensive and last twice as long. And there would be no accountability measures in place for states to ensure U.S. taxpayer resources are used efficiently and responsibly.

America’s iron pipe water system is crumbling. Water main breaks are occurring in record numbers, resulting in the loss of more than 2.6 trillion gallons of treated water every year. These pipes are in desperate need of replacement as part of a broader effort to improve our nation’s infrastructure.

There was a time when iron pipe was the only material that could do the job. But that’s not the case anymore.  Innovative materials have been developed in recent decades, including PVC pipe – which has twice the projected lifespan of ductile iron pipe and can withstand extreme temperatures.  PVC pipe is less expensive than iron pipe to manufacture and install, and its lightweight construction requires less cost and energy to transport.

The iron pipe industry wants the public to believe today’s iron pipe is as strong as the material that’s been underground for a nearly a century.  It’s not.  Old water pipe systems were built using cast iron, but it’s far too heavy and cost prohibitive today. The industry now uses ductile iron, which has a much thinner wall and is lined with concrete, which can deteriorate over time.  (Burton, MI had to replace its ductile iron pipes when they failed after just 15 years. The city switched to PVC pipe, saving more than $2M and enabling service to more homes.)

The iron pipe lobby knows PVC pipe is a potential threat.  So it’s trying to block competing materials, like PVC pipe, from ever reaching decision tables in municipalities across the country.  The iron pipe industry has sent letters to cities urging that its material be exclusively available to local city engineers.  The iron pipe lobby wants to limit competition – because it knows if iron pipe goes head-to-head with PVC pipe, the industry will lose market share. Some cities, like Burton, MI, are responding by defending the value of open competition.

Iron pipe’s campaign to block open competition would force taxpayers to pay more for a lower quality material – both in the short and long run. Competition lowers prices.  And research shows open competition can save taxpayers anywhere from 30% to 50% even when ductile iron pipe is the material ultimately selected. That means the same ductile iron pipe by the same company would unnecessarily cost taxpayers in closed bidding areas nearly 50% more than it would if open competition was allowed. And this doesn’t account for ductile iron pipe’s long-term burden on taxpayers, as its material has a projected lifespan half that of PVC pipe.

Cities shouldn’t be restricted to one specific material. But cities should have the right to determine, for themselves, what material is right for them to replace their corroding iron pipe water systems.

The iron pipe industry now wants the USG to grant states federal infrastructure funds without any oversight. Today, nearly 70 percent of all U.S. municipalities practice closed bidding. Handing federal funds to states with no strings attached, without any obligation to consider all pipe material options available, assures these funds will be spent on iron pipe – at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. It would act as a federal earmark for iron pipe, with no accountability to ensure fed resources are used effectively for their designated purpose at the state level.  

If federal funds are spent on state infrastructure improvement projects, federal taxpayers deserve to know how these funds are being used. Localities must have the final say in allocating federal resources.  At the same time, taxpayers deserve to know what they’re paying for and why, for example, the very same iron pipe costs 35% more in Raleigh than it does in Charlotte. No one is suggesting localities shouldn’t have the final say in allocating federal resources. But is it not fiscal malpractice if the federal government stood idly by and did nothing to make sure USG funds are being utilized responsibly, and in the most efficient manner possible, to ensure U.S. taxpayers receive the most bang for their buck?