Se habla Public Works?

Tammy A. Qualls, P.E., Project Manager, RMC Water & Environment, San Jose, California, and member, APWA/AMMAC Partnership Task Force; Julio C. Fuentes, Senior Traffic Engineer, City of San Diego, California, and Chair, APWA/AMMAC Partnership Task Force
The Jennings Randolph Fellowship to Mexico opens up new worlds; the APWA recipients get to see a glimpse of public works in Mexico, and the Mexican public works officials and engineers get to learn about what is going on in the United States. The Fellowship is the best kind of interchange, as it is an active one, each year focused on one of the most important public works conferences in Mexico. Fellowship recipients are swept into a whirlwind of activity, conference sessions and discussion, en espanol. Unlike in the U.S., public works issues in Mexico are actively, passionately debated in public: at the conference, at the coffee breaks, at the afternoon tequila break, at dinner. Recipients have the opportunity to become immersed in public works and public policy issues.

This year we were the proud recipients of the Fellowship. As you have read in the January 2007 articles by Tom Trice and Bob Kass, our trip to Mexico was filled with training, public speaking, networking and sightseeing. In this article, we wanted to give you some background on public works issues in Mexico to further spread the information that we learned during our Fellowship.

"Clean Cities" was the theme of the AMMAC (Asociacion de Municipios de Mexico, A.C., or Mexican Municipalities Association) Conference in the City of Villahermosa, which is located in the southeastern part of Mexico, adjacent to the Yucatan Peninsula. The Clean Cities theme at the conference was discussed in areas such as regional planning, Smart Growth, water, wastewater, solid waste disposal, and air quality among other topics. The forward thinking and commitment to environmental concerns that was displayed among all attendees was noteworthy. It is clear that the challenges facing public works administration transcend borders and diverse regions, and that there is room to learn a great deal from one another through international exchanges.

With 108 million people, Mexico is the fifteenth largest country in the world and the thirteenth largest economy. As a Federal Republic, Mexico has a highly centralized government, with much less control given to the states than we have in the U.S. Although Mexico has the highest per capita income in Latin America, 20% of the population is in extreme poverty.

Each year, the Mexican government spends over $5.7 billion on public works. Since the government also runs the state-owned oil company, Pemex, this amount also includes the oil and gas expenditures. Officials in the government have estimated that an additional $50 billion per year is needed for infrastructure improvements.

From what we heard at the conference, this estimate seems accurate. Many of the public works officials we spoke to expressed frustration at the lack of resources. We learned that only 30% of the wastewater in Mexico is treated, while 70% is directly released into oceans, rivers, and waterways. This is not for lack of trained engineers or knowledge of the design of wastewater treatment plants, but rather for lack of funding from the government.

As mentioned previously, the focus of the conference was Clean Cities. While this theme spanned many topics including recycling, sanitary sewers and renewable fuels such as biodiesel, the buzz at the conference was over solid waste disposal. Mexico has made a lot of progress in this area from expanding weekly municipal collection to many urban areas, to the design and maintenance of municipal landfills.

As we attended conference sessions and met with engineers and planners, we learned a lot about how far Mexico has come, and how far it still has to go. There are three areas that conference attendees seemed particularly concerned about:

  • Lack of funding/problems getting funds from the national government
  • Lack of standards/enforcement of public works standards
  • Lack of worker safety

Out of all of these topics, the first one, lack of funding, was the most discussed. When funding runs out from the federal government at the end of the year, workers often have to be temporarily laid off until the new year begins. Treatment plants have to be shut down, trash collection slows, and construction halts. The problem is that the cities and counties do not have control of the funding. The federal government promises a certain amount per year, and the cities base their working budget on this amount. If the federal government runs out of money, all of a sudden there is a shortfall, and the cities, and by proxy the citizens, pay the price.

One lesson that we learned at this conference is that funding alone is not a solution to all problems, and that we can find valuable resources if we only look within ourselves. Partnerships with other agencies or organizations (such as educational institutions) can be conduits to training opportunities and other economies of scale advantages. Documentation and codification of activities and processes can lead to the development of institutional memory, and can guarantee the continuity that is needed to advance projects and programs in spite of major institutional and political changes.

In the area of public participation, we learned that the challenges of reaching out to the public and including public participation in any type of public project are crucial to the success of such projects. We learned that obtaining public input in the development of a project or a program assures not only that such endeavor will address the concerns and needs of the community, but also that it will likely enjoy wide acceptance.

We were inspired by our Mexican colleagues at the conference. These professionals are doing the best they can to bring public services to their citizens. We definitely have a lot to learn from each other.

We want to thank APWA for giving us the opportunity to share ideas with our Mexican colleagues through the Jennings Randolph Fellowship. It was an amazing learning experience.

Tammy Qualls, P.E., is a Project Manager for RMC Water & Environment in San Jose, California. She originally planned to study sewer collection systems in Mexico and compare the operations of these systems with those in the United States. At the request of the Mexican conference organizers, Ms. Qualls delivered a paper on the design and use of recycled water systems and focused her research on the potential for development of these systems in Mexico. She can be reached at (408) 943-1501 or

Julio Fuentes is a Senior Traffic Engineer with the City of San Diego, California. At the AMMAC Conference he presented an overview of citizen participation and how it is utilized in the implementation of neighborhood development and public works projects. His evaluation of the results of the implementation of Continuous Flow Intersection Design in Tijuana is ongoing and will be the subject of a subsequent report. He can be reached at (619) 533-3092 or

2007 Jennings Randolph Fellowship recipients named

The American Public Works Association is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2007 Jennings Randolph Fellowship. The following APWA members were selected through a formal application process to present public works/infrastructure-related papers at APWA's international partnership countries' public works-related conferences coupled with a one-week study tour of public facilities and issues in that country. All four recipients will prepare articles for the APWA Reporter reflecting their experiences and findings.

The 2007 Jennings Randolph Fellowship Recipients are:

  • Willard A. Bruce, Commissioner, City of Albany, Department of General Services, New York. Willard Bruce will attend the Slovak Public Works Association and Czech Republic Public Works Association Joint Conference the middle of October in the Czech Republic and will study waste management and waste disposal legislation, regulation, and practices in the Slovak and Czech Republics, and will identify management practices that would be transferable from our systems to theirs and conversely.

  • Paul A. Hindman, P.E., Manager, Design and Construction Program, Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, Denver, Colorado. Paul Hindman will attend the Slovak Public Works Association and Czech Republic Public Works Association Joint Conference the middle of October in the Czech Republic and will research the history of flooding and investigate how the Czech and Slovak public works professionals have managed floods and how they have protected their citizens and property.

  • Jim M. Close, Director of Public Works, City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Jim Close will attend the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia Conference in Cairns, Australia on August 26-30, 2007 and will study the issue of municipalities facing an increasing waste management problem, particularly with organic waste, and will seek ways to link municipalities and farms in a mutually beneficial system.

  • Keith A. Reester, Jr., Director of Public Works, City of Loveland, Colorado. Keith Reester will attend the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia Conference in Cairns, Australia on August 26-30, 2007 and will study the issue of public works leadership retiring, leaving a tremendous potential gap in employees, experience, and "grey hair" in the public works arena and will explore what the Australian public works field is doing to overcome this future gap.

The APWA International Affairs Committee looks forward to receiving applications for the 2008 international conferences in New Zealand and Mexico. To learn more about this program, please visit the APWA website at under "About APWA - International Activities" or contact Kaye Sullivan, APWA Deputy Executive Director, at or (800) 848-APWA, extension 5233.