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Water main breaks in Downtown Boston, Needham, Wayland cited as a sign of needed maintenance spending

Posted by Your Town  September 30, 2013 04:38 PM

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Lawmakers and municipal officials pushing for state funds to address billions of dollars in unfunded drinking and wastewater system needs say it is time to create borrowing authorizations for infrastructure like the state does for roads and bridges.

Municipal officials told lawmakers on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee late last week they are relieved that top officials are talking about helping with a problem that consumes many communities.

Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) has said water infrastructure is on the top of the Legislature’s to-do list this fall, although it’s less clear whether the House will follow the Senate’s lead on the issue.

Last week, Patrick administration officials said they would support adding additional spending to a $911 million, five-year environmental bond bill to repair aging water infrastructure systems, but likely could not accommodate the full $2 billion request being made by some lawmakers.

In weighing the issues, lawmakers eyeing new sources of revenue are also mindful of the state’s high per capita debt levels, the long, slow economic recovery, recent votes to raise taxes to address transportation investments, and a percolating debate over raising the state’s minimum wage.

During an Environment Committee hearing, Abbie Goodman, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts, said infrastructure problems are becoming clearer to people as they encounter water main breaks around the state.

Last Thursday, a water main break in Downtown Crossing in Boston tied up traffic and flooded streets. Another break occurred in Boston last month on Tremont Street at Massachusetts Avenue. Earlier this month, Needham and Wayland also experienced water main breaks.

Former state Sen. Robert O’Leary, a Barnstable Democrat who preceded Sen. Daniel Wolf, said drinking and wastewater is the single most important issue for Cape Cod communities.

“We are happy the state is taking up water infrastructure,” O’Leary told the committee. “It is critical. I know it is a statewide issue, but for us it is even more critical.”

O’Leary, a board member of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said Cape communities generate approximately $700 million in tax revenue from tourism annually.

“We are a bit of a cash-cow for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and we’re happy to be so. However, we have an enormous problem,” he said.

Cape communities cannot afford to fix water problems on their own and need the state’s help, O’Leary said.

Shelia Vanderhoef, town administrator in Eastham, said her town needs $114 million to build a municipal water and sewer system. Currently, properties in Eastham rely on wells and septic systems.

The community is facing a public health crisis, with the discovery of dioxin, a toxic environmental pollutant, according to Rep. Sarah Peake, a Democrat from Provincetown. Some in Eastham no longer have potable water.

“The answer to this is a townwide system,” Peake said.

Peake said Eastham is not a wealthy community, and town meeting votes to fund a municipal water system have failed twice by only a few votes.

Peake is advocating for legislation (H 3480) that would qualify some communities for 0 percent financing for water infrastructure projects, if certain criteria are met.

Sen. James Eldridge, who co-chaired the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, said Massachusetts has more than 20,000 miles of sewage lines and 20,000 miles of water pipes, many of which were installed more than 50 years ago. Many pipes are corroding and leaking, he said.

Eldridge and Rep. Carolyn Dykema (D-Holliston), who co-chaired the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, are pushing a bill (H 690) that authorizes the creation of a $2 billion, 10-year bond bill to fund local drinking water, wastewater and storm water improvements.

The bond would provide $200 million annually for local projects. Each year, 20 percent of the funds would be sent to every municipality, similar to Chapter 90 transportation funding; 40 percent would supplement the existing state revolving fund low-interest loan program administered by the Water Pollution Abatement Trust Fund; the remaining 40 percent would fund grants for water projects to communities that adopt long-term asset management plans and met other criteria.

“We need investments in water infrastructure for public health and public safety, for the environment as well as our economy,” Dykema said.

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