July – August 2019 Commentary

When Beverly Watts was appointed Wayne County’s director of public services in 2016, the department lacked an asset man- agement plan to determine the long-term condition and maintenance of hundreds of miles of roads and bridges. The permit office, meanwhile, took up to six months to approve projects. In addition, overall morale was low, and the department lacked accreditation for best practices with a national public works association.
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Illustration by James Yang

Infrastructure – Government Business

When Beverly Watts was appointed Wayne County’s director of public services in 2016, the department lacked an asset management plan to determine the long-term condition and maintenance of hundreds of miles of roads and bridges. The permit office, meanwhile, took up to six months to approve projects. In addition, overall morale was low, and the department lacked accreditation for best practices with a national public works association.

“With a $320 million operating budget and just under 700 employees, we’re the largest department in Wayne County. One of my goals after being appointed by County Executive Warren C. Evans was to take more of a leadership role, given our standing as the largest department here,” Watts says. “We had a lot of complaints about our infrastructure, we had no plan for the future, and our morale was low. I believed we needed to operate more like a business.”

Early into her appointment, Watts directed her department to begin the two-year process to complete an accreditation program with the American Public Works Association. After being accredited in July 2018, Watts says her department now is recognized for following best practices in the industry, improving public works performance, offering added educational programs to employees, and stimulating a general raising of standards.

“There was some grumbling about going through the accreditation process, but I told our team we should be following best practices within our industry. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Watts says. “And do you know what? Once we got the accreditation — and we were the first county in Michigan to complete it — morale went up. We now have a plan, going forward, to improve upon our services and benchmark ourselves with public works departments around the country.”

Part of the improvement effort included hiring an outside consultant to assess the condition and maintenance needs of the county’s 1,440 primary and local roadways, 462 miles of state trunk lines and freeways, and 920 bridges. The consulting group will provide a 10-year plan that will literally serve as a road map for ongoing infrastructure maintenance and replacement.

Watts also set about improving the county’s park system. She says the “profit” from the upgrades boosts overall quality of life and helps attract economic development, especially among residential homebuilders. To that end, improvements are being made at Elizabeth Park in Trenton, Hines Park, which runs through several of the county’s 43 communities, and the Wayne County Family Aquatic Center at Chandler Park in Detroit.

We can’t afford to be second-best. We need to be the best. — Beverly Watts, Director of Public Services, Wayne County

In the permit office, Watts reorganized the team and added digital technology with the assistance of DTE Energy and Comcast. The result is that permits are now being processed and approved within 30 days, rather than four to six months. What’s more, residents and businesses have access to more online tools to streamline the permitting process.

The county’s fleet of vehicles, including heavy-duty trucks and equipment, was also in need of attention. Watts says the goal is to sell any vehicle that’s more than 10 years old. “We had some trucks that were 20 years old,” she says. “Technology is changing so fast — with equipment that old, it makes it tough to compete and be on par or better than other public works departments around the country. We can’t afford to be second-best. We need to be the best.”


5G Safety – Technology

As the next generation of digital connectivity, known as 5G, comes to metro Detroit, Michigan’s state and local regulators should require that the national telecom companies — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint — make the system secure from cyber attacks. The introduction of 5G will boost network speeds and make it possible for many more products to be connected to the web, often called the Internet of Things, or IoT.

The changes will mean that more factory equipment will have digital sensors, which will usher in the fourth industrial revolution — meaning pieces of equipment will “talk” with each other as well as smartphones, tablets, and computers. Many other products, via sensors, already are or soon will be connected, including refrigerators, dog collars, vehicles, medical devices, aircraft, farm equipment, and watches, to name a few.

One estimate predicts 5G, as a market sector, will generate $12 trillion in global economic output by 2035 and create 22 million jobs in the United States. But as more devices are connected to the internet, the potential for additional cyber attacks grows. The attacks include malware, identity theft, data breaches, ransomware, and crypto jacking.

To accommodate 5G, the telecom companies have to install thousands of small antennae and sensors on utility poles, road signs, inside buildings, and within the nation’s infrastructure. Adding stringent safeguards to the new system is a necessary and needed requirement to prevent cyber attacks while encouraging economic activity.


Automotive – Shifting Emissions

As more automakers introduce electric vehicles in the marketplace, consumers and businesses may think zero emissions from the tailpipe will greatly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. But a new study from German researchers Hans-Werner Sinn, Hans-Dieter Karl, and Christoph Buchal shows the production of electric batteries actually generates plenty of harmful emissions.

According to the study, battery manufacturers and suppliers use a great deal of energy in mining and processing key raw materials including cobalt, manganese, and lithium. In addition, 63 percent of the total electricity generated in the country comes from plants that burn fossil fuels — namely coal and natural gas — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

While the U.S. has sought to encourage and subsidize the development of cleaner energy sources like wind turbines and solar arrays, other countries aren’t as strident. Granted, installing greener technology creates added costs, and some nations can’t afford the expense. At the same time, green energy sources aren’t a panacea; they only work if the wind blows or the sun shines.

Given it will take decades to add more robust green energy sources, automakers shouldn’t be allowed to market their electric vehicles as producing zero emissions. The batteries that provide power and the stations, whether residential or commercial, where electric vehicles get recharged produce plenty of harmful emissions. In other words, the claim of a zero-emissions vehicle is misleading, at best.

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