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After Flint, Lawmakers Study $165M For Other Infrastructure

By David Eggert, Associated Press

LANSING (AP) - Lawmakers confronting the cost of Flint's water crisis and the Detroit school district's enormous debt are also being asked for an initial $165 million deposit to upgrade aging underground infrastructure across Michigan.

It's not just the lead pipes that carry water into older homes and businesses that eventually need replacing. Water mains, sewer lines, wastewater treatment plants, the electricity grid, oil and natural pipelines, and telecommunications infrastructure will require improvements, too.

At Gov. Rick Snyder's request, the Legislature is starting to consider the state's obligation to help modernize such "hidden" infrastructure a half-year after enacting a plan to address what is more visible to residents: deteriorating roads.

In the wake of the lead contamination in Flint, the Republican governor wants to create a Michigan Infrastructure Fund — which would be seeded with a proposed $165 million. Snyder is asking the GOP-led Legislature to set aside the money while a new 27-member commission he created works on a statewide infrastructure assessment and recommendations due by December.

The budget proposal is among the most significant issues to be resolved in coming weeks, when lawmakers plan to finalize a $55 billion spending plan for the next budget year and more aid for the Flint emergency.

John Walsh, Snyder's strategy director, said at a recent Senate hearing that the infrastructure fund would be "more preventative in nature. Let's take a look at what we have. What are the problems that we're facing and try to anticipate some of the needs."

While the Flint disaster was due to a "lot of human error," he said, "age of pipes, age of systems, even records of where lead pipes are are difficult to come by. You can take that across other communities that don't have that awareness as well. Let's take a long-term view on how we can improve our infrastructure."

Key legislators are receptive to the concept of the new fund but say details must be hashed out, including how much to spend initially and how to spend it.

Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, who chairs the Senate budget committee, said he envisions communities using the money to better assess their underground infrastructure and to identify risks. But he opposes the state covering the cost of pipe replacements or other construction work — something the Snyder administration has suggested as a possibility.

"I've been pretty clear that we're not going down the road of putting a fund together to pay for infrastructure improvements or replacements. That has to be a part of a local community's plan to serve their residents, whether it's built into their water/sewer rates or however they want to do it," said Hildenbrand, R-Lowell.

The Senate could vote soon on his legislation to create the fund while higher-level talks continue on whether $165 million is the right amount. That consideration could depend in part on whether lawmakers decide to reverse a law that inadvertently qualified auto insurers for an estimated $80 million annual tax break. Hildenbrand said legislators may end up settling on a lower number for the infrastructure account.

Supporters of the fund say the need is great. The Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, a construction trade group whose members include sewer and water contractors, estimates that Michigan is underspending on drinking water infrastructure by $284 million to $563 million annually. Three in four residents get their drinking water from public water systems, many of which were built 50 to 100 years ago.

Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said "it's no secret" that infrastructure upgrades are required. He sits on a panel that investigated Flint's crisis and is developing recommendations.

He noted that municipalities get hundreds of millions of dollars less each year after years of state revenue-sharing cuts.

"There are real unmet needs, and the state needs to step up and help communities meet those needs," Irwin said.


Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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