BOSTON (SHNS) – After a summer that brought heat waves, tropical storms, heavy rainfall and the rise of the Delta variant, top Baker administration officials on Thursday faced questions from lawmakers over whether the Republican governor had proposed to do enough with federal relief funding to upgrade water, sewer and port infrastructure, or to connect underserved communities to the internet.
The Legislature on Thursday resumed its examination of how best to spend roughly $4.8 billion in federal relief money funneled to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act, hosting its third hearing on the COVID-19 relief money and the first since July.
Three committees heard testimony from three Cabinet secretaries and host of mayors, lawmakers and advocates on the need to use money to mitigate the overflow of sewerage into clean water supplies and ways to support small downtown businesses and the arts sector still recovering from the worst of the pandemic.
Tourism industry leaders suggested putting money into marketing campaigns to encourage residents to travel locally and lure international travelers leery of the Delta variant back to Massachusetts. And Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said any recovery plan must include spending to close the “digital divide” in communities still lacking access to high-speed internet.
“I know everybody wants a piece of you, and everyone will get a little piece, but I need this,” said Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, advocating for a regional clean water project that would benefit her city.
While the first post-Labor Day hearing focused on economic development, climate, tourism and transportation, House and Senate leaders have at least three more hearings planned this fall to drill down into health care and education needs.
Beacon Hill lawmakers have been taking their time to consider how to spend the one-time ARPA resources in the face of pressure from Gov. Charlie Baker to begin spending the money quickly, and so far have not spelled out a timeline for when a spending plan might come together.
Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides testified from Lawrence on the banks on the Merrimack River at the site of a combined sewer outfall where she said 130 million gallons of untreated sewerage had flowed into the river over the span of two days last week as a result of Tropical Storm Ida.
“The time to invest in adaption is now. It’s not tomorrow or the next day,” Theoharides said.
Baker has filed a $2.9 billion plan (H 3922) that includes $400 million for water and sewer infrastructure upgrades and another $300 million to improve culverts, dams and other infrastructure.
“These pieces of our infrastructure are being tested everyday as we experience storms like last week,” Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler said.
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy focused on ways the administration hoped to use the money to rehabilitate downtowns, address gaps in high-speed internet service and boost tourism through marketing and facility upgrades.
The governor’s bill includes $350 million for downtown revitalization, $100 million for tourism and $100 million for broadband expansion.
Kennealy said that since launching the One Stop for Growth initiative to streamline the grant application process by allowing municipalities to fill out one application for 10 different programs, the administration has received requests for about $300 million in funding, but has only a $100 million capital budget.
“We know there are ample needs in our communities for capital resources,” Kennealy said.
The environmental and public health threat posed by aging water and sewer infrastructure drew testimony from both the administration, as well as mayors, environmental groups and other legislators concerned about the capacity of systems to handle severe weather without discharging untreated sewerage into clean water supplies.
Cheri Cousens, executive director of the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District, said several projects have been identified to address overflows into the Merrimack River, including the separation of water and sewer in parts of Lawrence and Methuen, the construction of a 5-million-gallon storage tank, and improvements at the district treatment plant to process higher flows.
The cost of those projects, however, totals $100 million, and is unaffordable for the impacted communities, she said.
Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, a Methuen Democrat, testified that she did not think the $400 million for wastewater and sewer improvements was enough to meet demand.
“I ask that we really look at the numbers, increase the funding, but we also look to prioritize those water bodies that serve as drinking water. We’re going to have to triage,” Campbell said.
Even if the Legislature were to adopt Baker’s full package, that would still leave roughly $2 billion in ARPA funding that lawmakers could spend as they see fit.
“I’m wondering if $100 million is enough to truly build a robust offshore wind industry,” said Rep. Jeff Roy, questioning how the Baker administration arrived at $100 million for marine port development.
Theoharides said the administration envisioned using the money to leverage private investments in the ports as well, but would be open to discussing the number.
Sen. Eric Lesser, who co-chaired Thursday’s hearing with Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, asked similar questions of Secretary Kennealy about whether $100 million for broadband would solve the problem, or still leave communities without access.
“It’s at least a very, very good start,” Kennealy said.
Rep. William Straus, the House chair of the Committee on Transportation, pressed the administration to produce a list of priority resiliency projects that would be funded if the Legislature agreed to the request for $700 million in that area and the criteria that might boost a project higher on the list.
“There are certainly ample things we’ve planned and prioritized if we’re able to get this money,” Tesler said, asking for time to work with colleagues, including Theoharides, to produce a list.
“We’ll certainly come forward with examples of how this would be used as soon as possible,” he said.
Sen. Michael Barrett also questioned why the administration had chosen not to fund certain climate projects, such as a modernization of the electric grid that will be necessary as the state transitions to more electric heating of homes and businesses.
“I don’t sense a consistent theme of trying to get a two for one hit, or trying to make sure mitigation, averting future climate problems, is always part of an adaptation policy,” Barrett said.
Theoharides said it’s “very clear” to the administration that the climate mitigation and adaptation needs to be pursued simultaneously, and she said the goal of the governor’s bill was to fund projects that have already been identified and planned by communities.
While the MBTA, the Department of Transportation and regional transit authorities have received their own funding through various federal stimulus bills, Tesler offered his support for Baker’s infrastructure priorities, including the “Complete Streets” program that has provided funding for communities to install bike lanes and help businesses, like restaurants, utilize sidewalks for outdoor dining.
Tesler also discussed the potential for even more money to arrive from Washington, D.C. through a major transportation infrastructure bill under consideration by Congress, though he said that funding would likely be spread over five years and much of it could come in the form of competitive grants.
Asked by Lesser if competing for funds for East-West rail would be a priority for the administration, Tesler said, “At this time, I still need to get a better sense of how that money is going to work before we can make decision on what projects we’re going to commit to file for.”
Tesler told Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Falmouth that the federal infrastructure bill may also contain opportunities to the state to take the next steps toward electrifying its ferry fleet.