By Patrick Crow
With congressional consideration of an expansive infrastructure bill looming for 2018, the Trump Administration, legislators and water groups are staking out their positions.
When Congress finishes work on a controversy-ridden tax reform bill, it will have the more pleasant task of doling out about $200 billion toward transportation, water and other infrastructure objectives (see WW, July 2017 and November 2017).
White House officials met in October with representatives of water groups to outline the administration’s priorities for the water and wastewater part of the legislation. They are drafting a “package of principles,” rather than specific recommendations, for consideration by Congress. The administration expects the $200 billion would leverage up to $1 trillion worth of improvements.
White House officials are drafting a “package of principles,” rather than specific recommendations, for the water and wastewater part of the legislation for consideration by Congress.
The Trump team wants to go beyond just grants. They plan to expedite federal permitting for projects, support pioneering (“transformative”) ventures, and seek inventive ways to finance improvements. Existing programs, such as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program and the use of private activity bonds, would be expanded.
Tax-exempt municipal bonds, the mainstay of 80 percent of water projects, may still be in jeopardy. Although Republican congressional leaders have said the tax reform bill would not tinker with munis, White House officials were noncommittal.
In November, water group officials outlined their infrastructure priorities in a briefing for several House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee legislators, including Garret Graves (R-La.), chairman of the pivotal Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.
The industry representatives included officials from drinking water and wastewater, private and public, and rural and urban utilities. Such diverse stakeholders predictably had some divergent viewpoints.
Topics at the meeting included appropriations for the state revolving funds (SRFs), support for WIFIA, restrictions on private activity bonds, eligibility for Clean Water SRF loans, technical assistance for small or rural utilities, collaborations between water companies, and research funding.
Another harbinger of the infrastructure bill was the formation of another caucus. Caucuses are informal liaisons for congressmen working on common causes. The House of Representatives has more than 200 caucuses covering a smorgasbord of topics.
Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), a member of the water resources and environment subcommittee, and three other representatives announced the Infrastructure Caucus. It is endorsed by the “Infrastructure Week” alliance, which includes the AFL-CIO, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the water sector’s Value of Water Coalition.
A year ago, Reps. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) and Dina Titus (D-N.V.) founded the Public Works and Infrastructure Caucus. It is supported by the American Public Works Association.
Meanwhile, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) is concerned about more immediate water infrastructure issues. It urged the Trump administration and Congress to help drinking water and wastewater operators repair facilities damaged by hurricanes this fall in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
WEF said Congress should offer them grants or low-interest loans — if the operators redesign or relocate those damaged facilities to make them more resilient to storms. It also urged the government to facilitate mutual assistance efforts between utility operators.
Eileen O’Neill, WEF executive director, said, “It may have been impossible to prevent water systems from failing due to the severity of the storms, but it is possible to rebuild them in ways that will reduce future risks and safeguard public health and environmental impacts.” WW
About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.