A plan to build a $22 million water connection from Pawtucket to the East Bay is dead, at least for now, after leery lawmakers raised questions about how much it would cost Bristol County, and what would happen if one of its main users decided to back out of a financing deal.
Last week, the House of Representatives Finance Committee voted to exclude from a state bond question a $15 million line item that, if approved by voters in November, would have helped pay for a new pipeline from Pawtucket, through East Providence and into Bristol County. Part of the cost, about $6 million to as much as 50 percent of the project, would have been borne by the state.
With its Warren treatment plant not operational, Bristol County receives 100 percent of its water from Providence via the cross-bay pipeline, which was completed in the early 1990s. The new connection would have brought the Bristol County Water Authority into compliance with state law that requires a redundant source. Though there are other possible sources — several reservoirs in Rehoboth, and even the possibility of desalinating water from the Kickemuit River — BCWA officials have said that tying in to Pawtucket would be easier and more cost effective than those other options.
While few doubt the need to give the district a second source, finance committee chairman Rep. Ray Gallison of Bristol said he fought to have the money taken off the bond issue because there are too many financing questions, specifically with East Providence’s commitment to the project and what that would mean to BCWA ratepayers.
Though the project has been endorsed by the Barrington and Bristol town councils, Rep. Gallison and Warren Town Council members have grown increasingly concerned in recent months about what would happen if East Providence decided it didn’t want to contribute financially to it. Though East Providence officials first proposed the project several years ago and reached out to BCWA officials to join in, city council members there have so far declined to support it financially.
For months, Rep. Gallison said, he has been asking BCWA executive director Pamela Marchand and others what would happen if East Providence does not ultimately agree to help Bristol County pay off the bonds. Warren officials have been asking the same questions, and getting few answers.
“That was my problem with the whole thing,” Rep. Gallison said. “I don’t know why I could never get an answer. Ask Pam.”
“We’re not going to be left holding the bag on this,” added Warren Town Council member Scott Lial at a May council meeting.
“We’ve been very frustrated with East Providence. It was their project, it was their intention to go forward with it. We’ve been burned by this four letter acronym (BCWA) so many times that I’m more than willing to wait until there’s more action from East Providence. We can’t take the financial risk at this time as a town, period, without guarantees.”
Why has East Providence balked? The state Water Resources Board’s Ken Burke, who appeared before the Warren and East Providence councils in recent months to drum up support for the project, said he believes the city did not have the political will to take on new debt.
East Providence has had water quality and infrastructure issues for years, and earlier this year began a $19 million project to upgrade its internal water supply infrastructure. Adding the pipeline debt might have been too much for the council, he said.
“I believe (the city council) simply didn’t have the tolerance or the appetite for another investment,” he said. “On the other hand, they have to look out for the taxpayer.”
Mr. Burke appeared before the Warren council in May, warning members that the state matching funds might not always be there if the project doesn’t get approval soon. Better to act now, he said.
“The state is offering a 50 percent match,” he said. If the council balks and the project stalls, “I might come back here with a zero percent match and I’ll be compelling the authority (to build the connection). The council can trump the experts and you can dig deeper into your pockets and do what you like.”
On Friday, Mr. Burke said it is clear that he and others who support the project didn’t do enough to convince Warren and East Providence of its importance. He said he will go back to the drawing board and in the coming year will “do some pretty steep education.”
“Believe me, if there’s a better option, we all want it.”
As for Warren’s reluctance to support the connection without clear answers, council president Chris Stanley said that likely will not change without assurances that Bristol County won’t be left holding the entire bag.
“The concerns are still there,” he said Thursday. “We’re still getting bounced around. We’re not getting clear answers. We don’t want to own this completely.”