By Colleen Quinn
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Lawmakers are talking about ways to find more money for cities and towns to fix aging water infrastructure, and expect to introduce a finance-package proposal in September.
Now that a $500 million tax law is in place to pay for transportation infrastructure, addressing the state's water needs is likely next on the list, according to lawmakers and an official from the trust fund that oversees clean-water and drinking-water projects.
Sen. James Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton, said he is working with Senate President Therese Murray's office on a water-infrastructure legislative package for the fall.
"That is something I am spending a lot of time on this summer," Eldridge told the News Service.
While Senate leaders have been more vocal on the issue, it's on the minds of House members as well.
Rep. James Cantwell, a Marshfield Democrat, said he expects the Legislature to move the issue forward.
"We certainly are going to see, I think, some legislative action," he told the News Service.
Cantwell said every community in the state is faced with aging water infrastructure, and many have already made investments.
"We want to make sure whatever we are doing this fall, we do something to protect those investments," he said.
Eldridge, who represents Shirley, said he could not provide any details about the upcoming legislative proposal.
In a speech after she was re-elected Senate president in January, Murray identified unmet water infrastructure needs as a top priority this legislative session. While water infrastructure has not grabbed the spotlight in the way transportation policy has, its supporters highlight major economic and environmental implications.
Lawmakers last year identified a $21.4 billion long-term funding gap for drinking-water and clean-water investments.
Susan Perez, executive director of the Water Pollution Abatement Trust Fund, told the News Service she expects the Legislature to address the issue this fall.
During an oversight hearing Tuesday, Rep. Antonio Cabral, a Democrat from New Bedford who chairs the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets, said he would like to see the trust establish a separate fund -- one not subject to federal restrictions -- to give communities targeted grants for water-infrastructure projects.
Eldridge said creating a separate fund is under consideration.
The idea was one of the recommendations of the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, co-chaired by Eldridge and Rep. Carolyn Dykema, a Holliston Democrat, which looked for two years at the issues surrounding the state's aging water system. The fund would encourage communities to adopt innovative ways to treat water, Eldridge said.
"That is probably the biggest recommendation," he said. "Is it time for a separate fund that would allow the commonwealth to focus on innovation, as well as regionalization? Should the state, through the power of purse strings, ... require towns and cities and regions to do what are called decentralized treatment of water?" he said.
Working with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Water Pollution Abatement Trust Fund finances about 100 projects each year.
In 2013, the fund will finance about $512.3 million in projects across the state after receiving applications for projections totaling more than $1.5 billion.
The fund, established through a federal grant during the Reagan administration, provides low-interest loans to cities and towns through the sale of bonds financed by using federal and state grants as capital. The fund has a AAA bond rating, according to Perez.
Perez said one of the suggestions from fund officials would be to offer communities loans, with some portion of the principal being forgiven.