Water Infrastructure Financing: The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) Program

Source: Congressional Research Service, CRS Report, June 11, 2018

The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program provides financial assistance for water infrastructure projects, including projects to build and upgrade wastewater and drinking water treatment systems. Congress established the WIFIA program in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA 2014, P.L. 113-121).

The WIFIA concept is modeled after a similar program that finances transportation projects, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program. Proponents of the WIFIA approach, including water utility organizations, cite several potential benefits
• WIFIA provides credit assistance to large water infrastructure projects that may otherwise have difficulty obtaining financing.
• WIFIA provides credit assistance, namely direct loans, at U.S. Treasury rates, potentially lowering the cost of capital for borrowers.
• WIFIA assistance has less of a federal budgetary effect than conventional project grants that are not repaid, because only the subsidy cost of a loan (representing the presumed default rate on loans) is required to be appropriated.
• WIFIA support limits the federal government’s exposure to default, because projects must be found creditworthy with a revenue stream for repayment to be eligible for assistance.

On the other hand, opponents of the WIFIA approach, including organizations that represent state environmental agency officials, have cited several concerns
• Federal funding for a WIFIA program could have a detrimental effect on federal support for established State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs that provide the largest source of water infrastructure assistance today.
• If WIFIA funding resulted in a decrease in SRF assistance, smaller projects may face financing challenges.
• The Congressional Budget Office has warned that the future costs of a WIFIA program to the federal budget may be underestimated.