A Bridge Over Unclean Waters

Why would the agency in charge of funding clean water projects vote unanimously to divert $511 million on hand  to construct a bridge when, by their own admission, we face an over $36 billion shortfall in clean water funding over the next 20 years? It’s simple: the Cuomo Administration has no solid financing plan for how to properly pay for the $3.9 billion price tag for the replacement of the Tappen Zee Bridge, the New New York Bridge (NNYB), and is desperate to find any dollars it can.  The game here is to avoid having to announce the toll hike that will result from the project in an election year.

The proposed raid comes in the form of a $511 million loan from New York’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) to the Thruway Authority (TA) for the construction of the NNYB. In a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, DEC Commissioner Chairman Joe Martens justified the loan by stating, “With constrained resources and urgent infrastructure needs, innovation in infrastructure finance is critical today”. And this is true in the context of clean water infrastructure, as according to a 2008 report by Martens’ own agency, New York is facing over $36 billion of wastewater infrastructure funding needs to upgrade and bring our systems up to a state of good repair over the next 20 years.

The CWSRF is managed by the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) and is designed to provide no and low interest loans to projects that protect our waters, such as sewer and wastewater treatment plant upgrades. They are now justifying this raid by stating that the activities funded by the loan will help protect and enhance the Hudson River Estuary. The problem is, some of the activities that they are proposing to fund are actually detrimental to the estuary, such as dredging and armoring the river bed. These concerns have been shared by EPA Region II, which has written to  EFC asking them to justify the spending of CWSRFs on transportation construction projects.

Following the unanimous vote to approve the loan by the Cuomo-appointed EFC board, the loan must now be supported by the board of directors of the TA and the state’s Public Authorities Control Board, which is expected to take up the issue on July 16th.

If allowed to go through this raid from our CWSRF will set a very dangerous national precedent. As we grapple with how to fund our desperate and ever increasing infrastructure needs, governors across the country could start to look at their own CWSRFs as a way to fund transportation and other pet projects that the CWSRF was not designed to fund. If this happens, it gives ammunition to those who oppose funding the CWSRF and will allow them to attempt to stop funding the program as they can correctly argue that the funds are not being spent as they are designed to be, possibly leading to the program’s downfall.

While our nation deals with our constrained resources and urgent wastewater and clean water infrastructure needs, we will indeed have to find innovative and new solutions to finance new projects and upgrades. A task that will only be made harder if the Cuomo Administration goes through with their plan to raid the CWSRF to build a bridge.

Author: Brendan Woodruff