Group: $12.3B water bill 'opens door for privatization'

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A group that advocates for increased spending on public water infrastructure projects said Tuesday that a $12.3 billion port and waterways funding bill that is expected to be signed soon by President Obama will "open the door to water privatization."

The measure, known as the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), is awaiting Obama's signature after being approved by the House and Senate.

The bill has been hailed as a boost for U.S. ports and waterways because it represents the first new round of water infrastructure spending to be approved by Congress since 2007.

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The Boston, Mass.-based Corporate Accountability International's Public Water Works! campaign said Tuesday that the bill was less promising than it appears because it includes a provision that is designed to boost public-private partnerships called the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, however.

"We are alarmed by the implications of this bill, which would open the doors to an increase in water public-private partnerships in the U.S. and effectively subsidize water privatization," CAI Public Water Works Campaign Director Erin Diaz said in a statement.

"As our report 'Shutting the Spigot' details, the privatization of water systems around the globe has often resulted in devastating results for the economy and people—rate hikes, layoffs, labor abuses, environmental damage and public safety risks—all while failing to invest in essential infrastructure," Diaz continued. "We hope that given the consequences of privatization, public officials will use these new funds to improve public water infrastructure."

The program, referred as WIFIA, is patterned after the popular Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act that is often referred to as TIFIA.

The TIFIA program allows state and local governments to apply for low-interest loans that are backed by the federal government to entice corporations to enter into public-private partnerships, which are becoming a popular way to finance large transportation programs.

The water funding bill includes $175 million to start an identical program specifically for port and water projects.

Advocates say it makes sense to duplicate a program that has been successful for financing other transportation projects.

“The imminent creation of the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority is a significant breakthrough in confronting the U.S. water infrastructure challenge,” said American Water Works Association CEO David LaFrance said in a statement released when the WIFIA provision was included in a conference report on the water funding legislation.

“WIFIA will reduce the financing costs of critical infrastructure projects, allowing communities to fix and expand water systems at a lower cost to their customers," LaFrance continued. "Our elected representatives and senators deserve our gratitude.”

President Obama is expected to sign the water funding legislation. He and other administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, visited several ports last year to prod Congress to approve the water bill.

The last water funding bill to become law was passed in 2007 over a veto from former President George W. Bush.

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