Push starts for new $5B environmental bond act

Sewer, air quality, flood control projects eyed

| Schenectady Daily Gazette

New sewer lines and septic systems. Flood control projects, preservation of open space and habitat restoration. Improved air quality and more community gardens.

These are some of the items contained in a $5 billion bond act introduced last week by state Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Bob Sweeney, D-Lindenhurst. If passed by voters, the bill would allow the state to borrow money for a variety of environmental projects.

Environmental organizations expressed enthusiasm for the legislation.

“It hits some of our biggest needs,” said Katherine Nadeau, policy director for Environmental Advocates of New York.

Under the legislation, the bill would go before voters in the 2014 general election; if approved, it would be the largest bond act in the state’s history.

The last environmental bond act in New York was passed in 1996. The $1.75 billion measure contained funding to preserve open space, clean up lakes and rivers and shutter landfills, among other things.

“It has been a while,” said Dan Hendrick, a spokesman for the New York League of Conservation Voters. “These things are often about timing. We wanted to advance [a bond act] when it would have the best chance of passing.”

He said the bill might have been introduced earlier, if not for the recession and subsequent debates over raising federal deficits and the federal debt ceiling.

“It was not the time to be asking for money, even though the need is substantial,” Hendrick said.

Hendrick said the bond act legislation is being introduced now, when the Legislature is not in session, to kickstart a discussion about the measure. The bill introduced last week is “in some ways the starting point for negotiations,” he said. “We wanted to put it out there during the offseason so people can think about it.”

E.J. McMahon, president of the fiscal watchdog Empire Center for Public Policy, described the bond act as “excessive just on the face of it” in an interview with the Buffalo News.

In a post on the Empire Center website, McMahon noted that “as of fiscal 2011 New York ranks 2nd in total state debt, 6th in state debt per-capita, and 8th in state debt relative to personal income. … If the environmental bond act proposal leads to broader discussion of real infrastructure needs and borrowing priorities, it will be a good thing.”

Titled the Clean Water/Clean Air/Green Jobs Bond Act of 2014, it would:

• Allocate $2 billion for drinking water supply protection and flood control projects, including the protection of open space, farmland protection, habitat restoration, flood prevention, climate change adaptation and water quality-related research and development.

• Allocate $2 billion to repair, replace and upgrade the state’s municipal wastewater infrastructure and septic and drinking water supply systems.

• Allocate $1 billion for green infrastructure, protection and pollution prevention projects in urban communities, restoration of contaminated areas and improvement of community gardens and greenways.

Hendrick said the devastating impact of major storms Sandy, Irene and Lee had shaped the content of the bill.

“Sandy was a bit of a game changer,” he said. “People realized that there’s a massive need for infrastructure improvements.”

He said the storms exposed the state’s weaknesses and raised awareness about the need to protect the state from future extreme weather events.

Nadeau said New York’s crumbling sewage infrastructure needs an overhaul.

“It’s an expensive undertaking, but it’s one that protects public health,” she said.

Delaying sewage system upgrades will only make improving the system more expensive down the road, she said.

In much of the state, raw sewage is dumped into waterways on a regular basis due to sewer systems where storm water and sewage travel in a single pipe, rather than separate pipes.

When it rains, the high volume of waste and water often overwhelm treatment plants, sending the runoff straight into rivers. In the Capital Region, raw or partially treated sewage is frequently dumped into the Hudson and Mohawk rivers.

Nadeau said the improvements and projects funded by the bond act will also create jobs.

“It will put people to work,” she said.

Under the bond act legislation, money would be made available to state agencies, public authorities and public benefit corporations, municipalities and nonprofit organizations for environmental projects.

The memo accompanying the proposed bond act notes the 1996 bond act “permanently changed New York’s environment for the better. However, these funds are now exhausted and significant capital needs remain. For example, a 2008 assessment of the costs to repair, replace and update New York’s wastewater infrastructure estimated the total funding need to be $36.2 billion over a 20-year period. A similar assessment for drinking water infrastructure found a need of $38.7 billion over a 20-year period. These estimates were made prior to the devastation caused by extreme weather events.”

Grisanti and Sweeney chair the state Legislature’s environmental conservation committees.

Hendrick said the bipartisan support for the bill indicates it is a serious proposal.

©2013 Schenectady Daily Gazette