U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wants to make it easier for state and local governments to upgrade pipes and other water infrastructure.
Gillibrand, D-N.Y., outlined her proposal during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. She is sponsoring a bill, the Promoting Infrastructure and Protecting the Economy Act, that would create a new 10-year, $5 billion grant program to fund water infrastructure projects.
The grants authorized by the PIPE Act would be modeled after the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program, which provides $500 million annually to support maritime, rail and surface transportation projects. The TIGER program is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Water infrastructure needs have been highlighted across the country. Lead pipes contaminated drinking water for Flint, Michigan residents. High levels of PFOA were found in the drinking water source for Hoosick Falls, a village in eastern New York.
"Clean water is something we can't take for granted," Gillibrand said.
A report released last year by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli detailed the challenges that lie ahead for New York's water infrastructure. He projected that the state could need $40 billion in water infrastructure repairs over the next 20 years. Other estimates suggest that amount could be higher — as much as $80 billion — over the next two decades.
The state's water infrastructure needs are one reason why Elizabeth Moran, water and natural resources director for Environmental Advocates of New York, lauded Gillibrand's plan.
"We absolutely need our state and federal government to join together and invest more in water infrastructure if we are to catch up with modern-day needs," Moran said.
The water infrastructure problems plaguing New York range from water main breaks in Syracuse and other cities to other water quality concerns, such as the presence of harmful algal blooms in New York waterways. Some pipes in New York City, Gillibrand said, date back to the Civil War era.
The program proposed by Gillibrand would fund sewer and water projects would be open to all communities that wish to apply. State and local governments could bundle applications to help projects in rural areas compete with larger proposals.
Gillibrand said she has heard from local government officials who have plans to upgrade water infrastructure systems, but they lack the necessary funding to advance the projects.
"No New Yorker should ever have to worry about whether their water is safe to drink," she said.
There are existing programs to help fund water infrastructure projects, such as the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. However, the financing provided by those programs come in the form of loans that municipalities must repay.
For many communities, paying back the loans can be difficult.
"Additional grant money rather than just loan money is the right way to put our country on track to remedying our aging infrastructure," Moran said.
Gillibrand is encouraging colleagues to support her bill. She is hopeful that the PIPE Act will be included in any infrastructure plan approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump.
Trump and congressional leaders have released plans of their own, but no agreement has been reached on an infrastructure package.