Infrastructure Is the Economic Foundation of Our Communities and Country

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Senator Jim Inhofe explains why he is committed to addressing the infrastructure needs of the nation with the Water Resources Development Act of 2016.

(Getty Images)
Wastewater treatment facilities like the one pictured here are a critical component of our nation’s water infrastructure. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Senator Jim Inhofe.

The theme for Infrastructure Week 2016 is “Infrastructure Matters,” and as chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, this is a motto I have worked to consistently uphold in the committee’s legislative priorities. Last year, the president signed into law the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a law which addresses our nation’s aging transportation infrastructure. This year, my committee continues our commitment to addressing the infrastructure needs of the nation with the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 (S. 2848).

WRDA, like the FAST Act, upholds Congress’s constitutional responsibility to maintain our critical infrastructure and advance commerce. WRDA 2016 set up our economy for success by prioritizing projects that deepen ports to increase our global competitive advantage, providing protection from disastrous flood waters, and helping to restore our nation’s critical ecosystems. Just as critical, S. 2848 also addresses our aging drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.

The federal interest in addressing drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is to support both public health and our economy. Appropriately, the ratepayers, like you and me, are predominately covering the cost to maintain the infrastructure for drinking water and sewer services. However, ratepayers are now footing the bill for unfunded federal mandates that force local communities to change their priorities. Unfortunately, in the water and sewer sector, this forces basic repair and replacement to the bottom of the list. When we force communities to chase mandates that may have very small incremental health or environmental benefits, we risk losing basic public health protections.

We also risk losing the economic foundation of our communities and our country.

The federal programs in WRDA 2016 encourage both local and private investment while also allowing states and local governments to partner with the federal government when necessary to help disadvantaged or high-risk communities address their water resource needs.

A cost-effective way to provide federal assistance to communities with clean water and drinking water needs is by continuing to support the state revolving funds (SRF) that provide federally backed low-cost loans for infrastructure improvements. Because these are loans that leverage additional investment, the clean water fund results in a 256 percent return on the federal investment and the newer drinking water fund results in a 176 percent return on investment.

To support even more investment in infrastructure, Congress attached the Water Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act (WIFIA) to the WRDA 2014 bill to address high-cost projects. This year, the EPA is finally requesting funding to start the WIFIA program. The Office of Management and Budget predicts that the $15 million the EPA is proposing will secure up to $980 million in loans – a more than 60 to 1 ratio. WRDA 2016 provides $70 million in fully-offset, direct spending to capitalize WIFIA to help communities all over the country with low-cost loans. This funding will support as much $4.2 billion in secured loans.

WIFIA is designed to supplement, not displace, the SRFs. We need both programs, and funding for WIFIA cannot come at the expense of the SRFs. I strongly oppose the collective $217 million cut to the SRFs in the President’s FY 2017 budget request.

S. 2848 also addresses the urgent need to increase support for communities who simply can’t afford the investments that the EPA wants them to make and who don’t have the ability to pay back SRF or WIFIA loans. The WRDA bill addresses this issue by establishing a new grant program in the Safe Drinking Water Act to help small and disadvantaged communities meet the requirements of the Act, with a priority for underserved communities that lack basic drinking water or wastewater services.

I work hard to champion infrastructure in Congress because I believe that investment in infrastructure supports economic growth and gives America a competitive edge in the global marketplace. According to the Water Environment Federation and the Water Reuse Association, every one million dollars of SRF spending will result in $2.95 million in economic growth and generate $930,000 in new federal tax revenues, proving once again that America’s infrastructure is a sound federal investment.

Infrastructure matters – and it is for that reason I look forward to working with my colleagues to move this bill forward as soon as possible.

About the Author: Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) is currently serving as Chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.