NEWPORT — Newport officials urged Congress to work more expediently with legislators across the aisle to prioritize nationwide infrastructure funding in a meeting with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) on Wednesday, saying that delays to pass needed funding bills ultimately result in higher price-tags to complete projects.
Shaheen met with local officials at Newport’s water treatment station to discuss the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a bipartisan $1.2 million spending bill with $550 billion in new spending on infrastructure projects, including $55 billion to upgrade and replace water infrastructure across the country.
Newport has invested heavily in recent years to upgrade its water infrastructure. In March, town voters approved a bond of $1.3 million to begin replacing the town’s aging water pipes, a majority of which are more than a century old and at the end of their operating life. An additional $600,000 in grant funds, awarded through the Borders Regional Commission, will also go toward pipe replacement.
But this funding will only cover a small portion of the system’s total upgrades. A 2019 asset management study concluded that the town must complete more than $30 million in upgrades to its water distribution system over the next 10 years, the majority of those projects comprising water main replacements.
Town Manager Hunter Reiseberg stressed the importance of having ongoing federal funding to help defray these costs and reduce the cost burden on residents and businesses.
“Our water and sewer bill will likely be [our residents’] second largest expense,” Reiseberg told Shaheen. “Many of them don’t have the money [to absorb higher bills]. So am I going to double or triple their water and sewer bills?”
The costly infrastructure challenges facing Newport and communities nationwide are the consequence of decades of neglect and punting the burden to the next generations, Reiseberg said.
While appreciative of the new infrastructure bill, Reiseberg said that federal infrastructure funding needs to become a continual, annual priority, to maintain infrastructure before it becomes a crisis.
Under Reiseberg and Public Works Director Todd Cartier, Newport has taken a proactive approach to its water management. Last year, using a $354,180 grant from Northern Border Regional, the town moved the intake system further from the shoreline at its watershed, located at Gillman Pond in Unity, from 5 feet below the water surface to 20 feet below the surface. That relocation alone increased the town’s water intake “by four to five times the rate,” according to Reiseberg.
“We had the volume here,” Cartier told Shaheen. “We just weren’t using it because we were just too close to the surface.”
Relocating the intake should also protect the town from future droughts because of the water depth, Reiseberg said.
The town also has interest in constructing a well as a secondary water source on the northern side of Newport.
Reiseberg explained that many communities are shifting away from surface water sources because they are too susceptible to pollutants, such as algae blooms or snow dumpage from cleared roads. This well could also function as a backup in the event of a temporary shutdown at Gilman Pond.
The project is currently projected to cost around $1.75 million, including $300,000 for permitting and up to $1.5 million to build and bring online, Reiseberg said. The town already has a well site and the pipes on the north end of Newport are younger and in better condition.
However, cost inflation was an underlying topic of concern during Shaheen’s visit. Construction costs have surged dramatically since the start of the pandemic and industry representatives say to anticipate future project costs to increase by an annual rate of more than 5 percent.
Reiseberg told Shaheen that the delays, both in Congressional passage of spending bills and from new regulations, result in higher project costs than their original estimates.
Notably, the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which passed in the Senate last month, still needs passage in the House. And while Shaheen expressed confidence that the bill will ultimately pass, the bill faces opposition from some Republicans as well as Progressive Democrats, who want to condition the bill’s passage to the approval of a larger $3.5 trillion spending bill.
Shaheen said she is hopeful the infrastructure bill will pass by the end of the year, though states should anticipate an additional two to three months before money is distributed.
In a separate but related issue, town officials told Shaheen about complications caused by new regulations tied to some federal grants, including the $600,000 Northern Borders grant for water line upgrades.
New federal regulations prohibit the awarding of grant-funded projects to contractors who had previous discussion or involvement in the project’s development. This new rule prevents towns from hiring familiar architects or engineers for preliminary steps such as a cost-projection or feasibility study, town officials said. This regulation also appears to discourage contractors from providing preliminary services that could prevent them later from bidding.
“We had engineers [for our water line project] who said they don’t want to give any ideas on pricing because we want to bid on the project,” said Newport Economic Development Coordinator Christine Benner. “So then how does one put out a grant application?”
The stricter guidelines for advertising and hiring contractors has also left the town in limbo, to await further information from the grant administrators on how to proceed. As a result, Newport still has not begun to replace the water lines and will have to wait until next construction season. Reiseberg said the costs are estimated to increase $50,000 to $60,000 by next year.
In regard to the infrastructure bill, Shaheen called it “critical” for Congress to put partisanship aside to get needed funds to the communities.
“The sooner we get out to communities, the better,” Shaheen said. “Every day they don’t have those dollars, they can’t start construction and the costs go up. So we have to act.”
Earlier in the day Shaheen sat down with the Thomas family of Lempster to discuss their personal experiences with accessibility to high-speed internet, a particular need that has only been further underscored throughout the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic as students, educators, and workers of countless fields moved online.
“Access to broadband opens the door for economic opportunity and is an essential tool for Granite Staters to learn, stay connected, and access critical services like health care. Despite the tremendous benefits of broadband, far too many rural New Hampshire communities remain disconnected or priced out from this critical, transformative technology,” Shaheen said. “My conversation with the Thomas family this morning laid out the importance of closing the digital gap by expanding access to reliable, high-speed broadband as our state recovers from the pandemic.”
Later on, Shaheen made a final stop at Mink Brook Community Forest in Hanover to hear from local officials and conservation stakeholders about the impacts of climate change on area agriculture and ecological systems, as highlighted by the visual changes to the foliage season.
“Each year, Granite Staters cherish the breathtaking beauty of our state’s fall foliage season,” Shaheen said. “Climate change is serious and demands immediate action. . .”