The responsibility for maintaining the integrity of our communities’ infrastructure and the long-term fiscal well-being of our public-sector should rest in the hands of design engineers, not local politicians or procurement officials. As a member of the American Concrete Pipe Association, County Materials joins with other concrete pipe manufacturers who are challenging current legislation that may negatively impact the ability of qualified design engineers to choose the right storm water pipe based on which materials comply with required specifications. Learn more by reading the article below, authored by Branimir Kovac, Vice President at Thompson Pipe Group.
Is the Engineer's Right to Choose in Danger?
The plastic pipe industry has been engaging in a campaign aimed specifically at promoting so-called “open competition” in the process for procurement of water pipelines. For example, the PVC Pipe Association has lobbied the federal government to include so-called “open competition” language in any upcoming infrastructure legislation. A letter was sent to this effect to every member of Congress last year. The reasoning goes that such a move improves value for money, reduces the “monopoly” of traditional materials, etc. The claim is made that decision-makers try to preserve the status quo because they’re wary of change. The cure, this line of reasoning continues, is to throw open the bidding to other materials — in this case, plastic pipe. Claims have even been made that some decision-makers may be guilty of cronyism, simply including their friends in the bidding process to the exclusion of others.
A Trojan horse
So, what’s wrong with open competition? Are engineers conspiring to fool the American taxpayer by putting their collective thumbs on the scale and shut the plastic pipe industry out of the bidding equation? In fact, there are no “closed competition” laws. Materials used in infrastructure projects, like all products purchased by the public sector, are in almost all cases chosen in an open bidding process. However, the products that are included in the bid must comply with required specifications in order to be considered. These specifications, in the case of water pipelines, are defined by qualified engineers.
Plastic is much cheaper than precast concrete, but, of course, you wouldn’t want a highway overpass to be made of plastic. Standards and specifications protect those of us who will use the infrastructure as well as the dollars invested by taxpayers. The effort to convince lawmakers of the benefits of “open competition” is, in my view, a Trojan horse. The goal is to have plastic pipe included in every pipe bidding process, including drainage pipe, sewage pipe and other applications. Since purchasing officers or political entities may be responsible for evaluating all bids, plastic pipe has a reasonably good chance of winning a specific bid, as plastic pipe is often cheaper than the other options because overall life-cycle costs and future liabilities are not factored into the bid.
Where does the buck stop?
When things go wrong, the design engineer may be partly held responsible — even judged legally liable — for failures that result from bad material choices. And despite the claims of the plastic proponents, things can sometimes go badly wrong. I live in California in an area that was seriously damaged in last year’s wildfires. I remember reading reports from our fire departments of instances where vital water pressure was lost because of melted plastic water lines. Also, damage to plastic drainage pipes increased the risk of delaying first responder operations and public evacuation routes, as well as the likelihood of mudslides once the fires had abated and the rainy season began.
Local authorities — and the federal government — are subjected to regular procurement oversight, which is specifically designed to expose cronyism. The “open competition” legislation that lobbyists are pressing for, both at the federal and the state levels, is simply trying to address a problem that doesn’t exist. Instead, the goal of the lobbyists is to further the interests of the companies they represent: the manufacturers of PVC and HDPE/PP pipe.
I’m an engineer and manager working for a company that manufactures pipe of many sorts: steel, concrete, reinforced polymer and fiberglass reinforced pipe. For many years, I’ve worked with pipe specifications and assisted local utilities and others in providing the right pipe for the right application, based on the appropriate engineering specification. I have no real problem with plastic pipe as such. I believe that there are applications where plastic pipe is probably the best option. However, I firmly believe that it’s the responsibility of the design engineer to choose the right pipe based on their own professional opinion, not the job of local politicians or procurement officials.
Congress has previously included a provision requiring “open competition” for culvert pipe in the 2005 surface transportation reauthorization, SAFETEAU-LU. This provision caused so much confusion that Congress reversed its decision in the next reauthorization bill, MAP-21. The 2012 MAP-21 law ensures that state engineers have the RIGHT TO CHOOSE the type of pipe material to be used for federally-funded culverts within their borders.
The opponents of “open competition” often cite life-cycle cost as an important consideration when choosing pipe. To my way of thinking, there’s nothing wrong with this. However, it’s important to bear in mind that plastic pipe, because it’s not a load-bearing structure, will incur additional installation cost and maintenance costs that far exceed those of rigid pipe materials that are structures in their own right. When these additional costs are included in the equation, the apparent procurement benefit of lower initial costs becomes less attractive. There are cases here in the U.S. of rigid concrete pipe systems that are more than 100 years old and still in service.
I firmly believe that design engineers must be allowed to exercise the expertise and experience they have so painstakingly acquired and serve their communities in the way they know best, by taking full responsibility for pipe material selection. By allowing political bias and commercial considerations to affect engineering decisions, we risk allowing high-priced lobbyists and other interests to endanger the integrity of our infrastructure and the long-term fiscal well-being of our public sector.
In this matter of pipeline material selection, this “open competition,” while sounding like an improvement, is in fact a chimera. Are we opening Pandora’s Box?
---Article by Branimir Kovac, Vice President, Thompson Pipe Group