Infrastructure in need

Urban Chronicle

Failing: The city needs money for its water and sewer systems, but more funding isn't a high priority with the Bush administration.

March 07, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THE MONEY would be just a drop in the bucket compared to what Baltimore needs to upgrade its aging sewer system, and the Bush administration is opposing even a modest increase in funding.

But maybe there's at least some comfort to be taken by the city - and its water and sewer customers - that some of official Washington recognizes the dimensions of the problem faced by Baltimore and other cities and is trying to do something about it.

Last week, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and one of its subcommittees held a pair of hearings on legislation dealing with water and sewer infrastructure.

The primary focus of the hearings was the Water Investment Act of 2002, which would more than triple the federal government's annual contribution to state revolving loan funds to an average of $7 billion a year for the next five years.

The funds - which require a 20 percent state match - are lent to localities at interest rates that are about half the rates in the bond market.

Last year, Maryland received about $40 million from two federal pools of money.

In the past, Baltimore has tapped into the fund for upgrades to the Patapsco and Back River wastewater treatment plants, and has applications pending for about $28 million in loans for sewer repairs, said Jag Khumen, program administrator for the Maryland Water Quality Financing Administration, which runs the state's loan program.

As for the additional funding contained in the congressional legislation, he said: "More money, we'll take it."

The state could use it. A report in December by a gubernatorial Task Force on Upgrading Sewer Systems put the statewide needs at $4.3 billion. As with so many other things, Baltimore accounts for a substantial portion of that figure.

Federal regulators are pressing the city to agree to make up to $900 million in repairs to a faulty sewer system that is spilling millions of gallons of sewage into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Yesterday, the city took the initial step in seeking what officials say will be the first of a series of rate increases to pay for those repairs.

Staggering as that number is, it does not represent all the city's needs. Baltimore also faces another $300-plus million in repairs to the Back River and Patapsco treatment plants.

In congressional testimony last week, Benjamin H. Grumbles, an administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the Bush administration could not support the increased funding because it was "not consistent" with the president's priorities of defense and homeland security.

"Are you indicating that clean water and safe drinking water are not priorities of this administration?" asked Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont independent who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a key sponsor of the bill to increase infrastructure funding.

"It is more than just a federal funding issue," said Grumbles, who called for more privatization and better technology.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes expressed concern that the funding formula did not adequately reflect the water quality challenges of each state.

The Maryland Democrat also spoke in support of a separate bill he is co-sponsoring that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants to upgrade wastewater treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay region.

An aide said Sarbanes' bill, which could be incorporated into the Water Investment Act, would not help the city patch its sewer lines, but it could help with longer-range needs at its treatment plants.

And some water and sewer officials called for more outright grants and more flexible loan terms.

But what was most striking in listening to Internet broadcasts of the hearings and reading the testimony of witnesses was the degree of consensus - among those officials and environmentalists, and Democrats and Republicans - about the need for more federal infrastructure funding.

Noting estimates that $23 billion annually will be required nationwide for the next 20 years, Nancy Stoner, director of the Clean Water Project of the National Resources Defense Council, said, "The need for greater investment in clean water and drinking water infrastructure is clear and undisputed."

Paul Pinault, vice president of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, said local budgets are being strained by regulatory requirements, including those involving sewer overflows like those in Baltimore. Pinault urged funding of $57 billion over five years.

"Without a significant fiscal partnership that includes long-term federal participation to meet these core infrastructure challenges, we will see a continued and devastating decline in both our national wastewater treatment and collection systems and the nation's public health and well-being," he said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, spoke of $20 billion in needs in her state.

And Sen. George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, talked about the $7.4 billion in needs in his state.

Voinovich noted the case of Akron, which has a long-term sewer control plan with a price tag of $248 million.

"Without outside funding, Akron's sewer rates could more than double," he said.

In other words, Baltimore has plenty of company in its infrastructure misery.

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