EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


March 20, 2014

Legislature aims to expand funding for water, sewer work

BOSTON — As communities throughout the state struggle to replace crumbling water and sewer systems, lawmakers are narrowing in on ways to plug a growing funding gap.

The sheer size of needs facing local governments statewide — pegged by lawmakers at more than $21.4 billion in the next 20 years — are complicating those efforts, as are concerns about the state’s borrowing capacity.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives is considering a bill to raise the spending cap for a low-interest, revolving loan program by $50 million a year to help local governments pay for water, sewer, and storm-water infrastructure projects. The $138 million fund would be renamed the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust.

The current version of the bill is a fraction of an earlier proposal, which would have allowed $250 million in additional borrowing and another $200 million from capital gains revenues. The Senate Bonding Committee removed those provisions amid concerns about over borrowing.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the legislation is a “step in the right direction” for addressing infrastructure needs, but its funding is only a drop in the pan.

In 2012, a legislative task force found Massachusetts cities and towns face $21.4 billion worth of water and sewer upgrades in the next two decades, calling it “one of the biggest fiscal challenges” for local governments.

“Water and sewer pipes are typically out of sight and out of mind because they are underground, but they are crumbling under our feet,” said Beckwith, whose group lobbied hard for the $450 million in increased financing.

In Lawrence, officials have borrowed $25 million from the revolving loan fund — known as the Water Pollution Abatement Trust — to clean and replace rust-coated water mains. But the project will only upgrade a small portion of the city’s 140 miles of water pipes, most of which are more than 100 years old.

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