Obama seeks 18% hike in water infrastructure spending

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Barack Obama wants to boost federal spending next year for a state drinking water infrastructure fund by $157 million, an 18 percent increase over last year, to assist with projects in communities affected by water contamination such as Flint.

The fiscal year 2017 request by the Democratic president faces an uncertain greeting in the Republican-controlled Congress, where Michigan’s delegation seeks to address Flint’s lead-contaminated crisis, but GOP lawmakers are worried about running up more of the deficit.

“We’re proposing not only a roughly 20 percent increase in the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which is a key resource for communities like Flint to help rebuild infrastructure for drinking water, but we also have some more innovative proposals more broadly to improve water quality and deal with its long-term challenges,” a senior administration official said Tuesday.

Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy said her agency decided to shift more money to the Drinking Water program after assessing infrastructure needs and backlogs across the country.

“It was not a direct relationship with Flint, but I think that Flint and other communities are a clear indication of the need to continue to upgrade our infrastructure and invest,” McCarthy told reporters on a Tuesday call.

The fund is a low-interest loan program requiring a 20-percent match from the state, and is intended for communities needing to upgrade transmission lines, expand facilities and make other waterworks improvements.

The state Department of Environmental Quality administers the program in Michigan and would decide how much state funding would go to Flint and other communities. The state received $20 million for its Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to spend in 2016, assuming a state match of roughly $5 million.

Michigan also received $60 million for the Clean Water Revolving Loan program, which helps with wastewater treatment projects not connected to the Flint water crisis.

“Our children should not have to be worried about the water that they’re drinking in American cities. That’s not something that we should accept,” Obama told a group of mayors last month at the White House.

The EPA’s proposal also designates $20 million to support the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which would issue loans for innovative projects and promote public-private partnerships, McCarthy said.

Obama’s $4-trillion plan would raise the cap on the percentage of funds made available through the program that each state may use to forgive loans from 20 percent to 30 percent.

Similar to last year, the Obama administration has proposed cutting a Great Lakes cleanup fund by $50 million to $250 million for efforts to clean up pollution and restore fish and wildlife habitats. Congress last year maintained funding at $300 million.

“Now is not the time to cut successful programs that protect our drinking water, jobs and way of life,” said Todd Ambs, campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

“We look forward to once again working with Congress to restore funding to Great Lakes protection efforts that are producing results for our environment and economy in communities throughout the region.”

Among Michigan priorities that would receive funding under the budget proposal is $100 million more for Michigan State University’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams — a $730 million physics research facility that began construction in 2014. It is projected to create 5,000 construction jobs and 400 permanent positions.

The administration has budgeted $81.3 million for a renovation project that would consolidate federal agencies in Detroit at 985 Michigan Ave., which was built in 1995 to house the Internal Revenue Service.

Also in the budget is $10.72 million in construction funds for repairs and alterations to the Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building Garage in downtown Detroit.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s budget says that, funding permitted, it will begin planning for the technology used to screen vehicles and travelers at border crossings as part of construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge in Detroit.

The Customs budget does not specifically allocate funding for the Howe bridge between Windsor and Detroit, or funding for the long-planned expansion of the customs plaza at the Blue Water Bridge. That span, which links Port Huron with Sarnia, Ontario, has awaited a delayed $165 million in construction funding for several years.

The Pentagon’s budget is notable for what is doesn’t include: Plans to begin phasing out the A-10 Thunderbolt attack plane. Twenty-one are housed at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, supporting 180 full-time jobs and nearly 300 part-time jobs.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter last week said the Air Force would push back retiring the jet, dubbed the Warthog, until 2022.

“The budget defers the A-10’s final retirement until 2022, replacing it with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters on a squadron-by-squadron basis, so we’ll always have enough aircraft for today’s conflicts,” Carter said in a speech at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, praised the military’s decision. “We know all too well in Michigan that the A-10 is fully engaged against ISIS and continues to protect troops under fire and save lives,” she said in a statement.

Stabenow, ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, was unhappy that Obama’s budget proposes additional cuts to the federal crop insurance subsidy. The federal program pays a subsidy to reduce premiums charged to producers by insurers, and insures some of their losses.

“The 2014 Farm Bill made significant reforms to the way we provide risk management tools to our farmers and ranchers,” she said. “It’s important that we keep the Farm Bill intact to provide the full five-year certainty promised in that bipartisan bill.”

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