Murphy Pledges $80M to Replace Lead Service Lines, Opening the Tap Just a Bit

Tom Johnson | February 27, 2020 | Energy & Environment, Budget
The money is more than welcome, but it’s a drop in the bucket for a $2.3 billion problem plaguing state’s water infrastructure
Credit: chuttersnap via Unsplash
Lead pipes

The Murphy administration wants to spend $80 million in its upcoming budget to start to replace hundreds of thousands of lead service lines in New Jersey fouling drinking-water supplies across the state.

But the proposed expenditure is only a fraction of the projected $2.3 billion it will cost to replace up to 330,0000 lead service lines in New Jersey, according to state Department of Environmental Protection estimates.

In his speech Tuesday detailing the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget, Gov. Phil Murphy, described the appropriation as making “a down payment for our communities to replace lead-water-service lines and modernize our infrastructure.’’

Lead, a longstanding problem

The issue of how to address the state’s long-recognized problems with lead in drinking water has emerged as a priority of sorts with the administration since the governor said it was time to focus on water-infrastructure problems in his State of the State address in early 2019. Last October, Murphy called for a $500 million bond issue to replace lead service lines, although lawmakers have yet to approve such borrowing.

How, precisely, the administration expects to fund the lead service- line replacements is unclear. In a budget briefing on Tuesday, officials from the Treasury Department told reporters there would be a $80 million supplemental appropriation for lead remediation of water infrastructure.

The administration’s Budget in Brief made public the same day, however, suggested otherwise. “In anticipation of future voter approval to issued debt for the replacement of lead service lines, the administration proposes appropriation $80 million to support critical water infrastructure needs in (fiscal year) 2021.’’

The administration touted the measure as “the first new appropriation for water infrastructure in decades.’’

CBT paying for this round of lead abatement

“The money is coming from the General Fund because revenues have performed well, the Corporate Business Tax being one of them,’’ according to an administration spokesperson.

Whatever the source, advocates welcomed the commitment to fund new lead service-line replacements. “Eighty million is an excellent step forward. It’s a good down payment,’’ said Chris Sturm, managing director for policy and water at New Jersey Future.

Others were less enthused. “It’s a down payment, but we need $2.3 billion to deal with lead service lines. We need a long-term stable source of funding,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

That prospect of creating such a fund is questionable, however, with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) pushing his own plans to create a stable source of funding to reinvigorate NJ Transit, a proposal that envisions constitutionally dedicating revenue to fixing the agency’s fiscal woes.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, cited the huge backlog in replacing lead service lines as reasons to move forward. “We have a $2 billion problem. We need to start investing in fixing lead service lines,’’ he said.