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Public Statements

Water Resources Development Act of 2013

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. MERKLEY. The heart of the WIFIA program is about jobs. It is about infrastructure. Five years after the greatest economic crisis in 80 years, we still face a serious jobs crisis. Too many are out of work and too many are unemployed. A good, living-wage job is the most important pillar of the American dream. There is no public program that can compare to the importance of a living-wage job for the stability and success of a family. We have to do more to create those jobs, a lot more. Wouldn't it be great if we could both create jobs and fill a desperate national need at the same time?

Well, that is exactly what WIFIA--which is short for Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act--does. Low-cost loans for water infrastructure projects create good jobs now while protecting our communities from devastating costs or public health crises in the future. WIFIA does all of this while making taxpayers money over time.

The need for water infrastructure is great. Across Oregon and across America, our infrastructure is aging. That aging infrastructure needs to be replaced. Our communities are growing. The demand for water infrastructure increases, whether it is water treatment on the front end or water treatment on the back end--sending water out to our homes and businesses and then treating it after it comes back. Much of our infrastructure is approaching the end of its lifespan and needs to be replaced.

We should recognize that America is behind much of the world in terms of investing in infrastructure. That is not only not good for our future economy, it is certainly not good for creating jobs. China is investing 10 percent of its gross domestic product in infrastructure. Europe is investing 5 percent. Here in America, which had a phenomenal infrastructure buildup after World War II, we are investing only 2 percent. That is barely enough to repair the aging infrastructure that previous generations so thoughtfully funded, let alone prepare the infrastructure to meet the expanding needs of the Nation.

Infrastructure can be thought of as the bread and butter of success of our Nation. Building and maintaining infrastructure is one of the most effective ways also to create jobs in the short term. Having infrastructure in place is absolutely critical to strong, private sector economic growth over the long term.

It is time to take water infrastructure seriously as a public policy challenge. For too long, we have been putting water infrastructure on the back burner. We are not investing enough in water infrastructure to keep clean, affordable water accessible to all Americans. In fact, we are not even coming close. There is a gap, a significant gap, a growing gap in the area of water infrastructure needs versus actual funding. If we do nothing and stay on the same course, that gap will be $90 billion per year by 2040. That is a disaster for our communities. That gap would leave municipalities with a terrible decision--allow the infrastructure to continue to degrade, which is obviously not a good idea, or have to raise utility rates astronomically to pay for long-neglected improvements.

Already, we are seeing this kind of lose-lose proposition play out in my State in Oregon. Some communities have to set aside their plans because they can't afford them: to expand their infrastructure, to improve their infrastructure, to replace their infrastructure that is aging. Other communities are proceeding to upgrade their infrastructure but at costs that are doubling or even quadrupling the cost of water to the citizens.

We need a new way to finance critical water projects. That is why the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA, that is contained in this bill, fills a key missing link in our system. Currently Federal funding for water infrastructure and sewage through the Environmental Protection Agency Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds Program is helpful, but many projects do not qualify, and we need to expand the amount of funding available.

Into that gap comes WIFIA, modeled after the very successful Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA, so we have a proven finance model for infrastructure in transportation. Let's take that proven model and apply it to the challenge of our communities on water.

I hold a meeting with our local officials--our city officials and our county officials--before each of my townhalls, and I hold a townhall in every county every year. There is hardly a meeting with multiple officials that goes by that there aren't two or three or four critical water project needs discussed. And that was the motivation for having this WIFIA Program before us today.

I applaud my colleague from Oklahoma Senator Inhofe, who has come forward and said: Let's not only make this work, but let's lower the minimum threshold for projects so we make sure we can get smaller communities, more rural communities involved. That was previously addressed in the bill by saying that smaller communities could aggregate their projects and submit their application, but this was a very helpful addition to the conversation, and I appreciate that type of bipartisan problem-solving which is evidenced in this bill as it is and as in the amendment proposed by my colleague from Oklahoma and passed yesterday.

The reason that funding in this pilot project--and we are talking about $50 million a year for 5 years--is effective is because it has a huge leverage it can fund because it is guaranteeing loans that rarely go bad. The historical default on water and sewer bonds is less than 1 percent. In fact, it is less than one-tenth of 1 percent. So that $50 million to cover defaults can be extraordinarily leveraging. The communities get the funds they need to complete their projects at the lowest interest rates possible, and the American public can sleep soundly at night knowing that the treasury funds being invested are being invested in a manner that is both prudent and productive.

This source of financing will allow communities to take on three types of projects necessary for safe and reliable water systems: repairing the aging infrastructure, upgrading the old systems to modern standards, and expanding the projects to meet growth needs.

Another advantage of this structure of financing is that under WIFIA, projects would be selected by a competitive process rather than by State-by-State allocations, so we get funds to the greatest need across this Nation. We have communities all across Oregon, in every corner of our State, that are facing these infrastructure challenges. I know from talking with my colleagues that the same is true in States across our Nation. And communities that are in good shape now in 5 or 10 years may see the challenge of meeting new standards or meeting the growth in their communities.

I would like to talk about another key aspect of our recovery; that is, manufacturing. If we don't make things in America, we will not have a middle class in America. Our manufacturing sector lost 5 million jobs over the last 14 to 15 years. It is starting to make a comeback, but we should do more to help create good manufacturing jobs.

One very simple thing we can do is support ``Buy American'' provisions in legislation such as this. We recognize the principle. We are using taxpayer dollars to complete a public infrastructure project in America, so it only makes sense for American businesses and workers to do as much of the work as possible. For that reason I will be filing an amendment to this bill to expand the ``Buy American'' provisions for our water infrastructure. These two are very much connected. Yes, we need to be building infrastructure, but we need to make sure those tax dollars build our American economy when the work is being done.

In closing, let's pass this bill, which has a tremendous amount of good in it, and one of those very good points is this water infrastructure act--WIFIA--which does support good jobs and good infrastructure across America.

I also wish to mention the great work my science associate Mirvat Abdelhaq has done on this bill. We are fortunate as Senators to have folks come to work for us for a year or so, bringing their tremendous expertise in trying to develop a very important piece of legislation. She has been very involved, and I thank her, and I thank the program for making this kind of expertise available to our offices.

Mr. President, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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