In 1986, when New Jersey instituted one of the nation’s first independent state financing authorities for the construction of water quality projects, not many people realized how effective it would be. During the past 30 plus years, the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust (NJEIT), working in partnership with the NJDEP, has provided more than $7.2 billion in low-cost funding to municipalities and counties for projects that protect ground and surface water resources, and ensure safe drinking water. New Jersey taxpayers got cleaner water, the economic benefit of 130,000 direct construction jobs, and saved $2.46 billion in interest costs.
So how do you improve upon one of the state’s biggest environmental infrastructure success stories? “Double it,” says David Zimmer, executive director of the agency. “With just 18 employees and the help of the NJDEP, we will issue more than $1 billion over the next two years.”
As head of the reorganized and newly branded agency—now called the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank, or “I-Bank”—Zimmer draws on decades of experience working on Wall Street and in public service, with an MBA and a Civil Engineering degree for good measure. That diversity of experience helps him understand the projects that come across his desk and navigate getting them funded at the lowest possible cost.
Here are his thoughts on the ambitious path ahead for I-Bank, and how everyone in New Jersey stands to benefit.
Defining the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank. “The New Jersey Infrastructure Bank has two separate programs that are statutorily set up to fund and administer loans for water and transportation projects respectively. The I-Bank will continue to make low cost loans for wastewater, storm water and drinking water projects. We will soon roll out a similar program for local transportation projects, such as bridges and roads.”
Expanding the Mission. “The I-Bank oversees and administers two distinct financing programs—the familiar NJEIT and another through the new, New Jersey Transportation Infrastructure Bank (NJTIB). When the legislature passed a law adding transportation projects, the I-Bank had a responsibility to develop the NJTIB. We have two separate programs, but federal and state laws dictate that their funds be kept separate.”
Managing the I-Bank. “We need to run the I-Bank as if it were a commercial bank—without the profit motive—cut bureaucracy and get these funds into the hands of the people who need it for infra-structure.”
Qualifying for I-Bank Funds. “Our borrowers are qualified by federal and state law; an eligible entity is a public water system such as a county, municipality or municipal utilities authority (MUA), or a private drinking water supplier. There has never been a project certified for eligibility that has not received funding. We’ve made more than $100 million in loans.”
Prioritizing Projects. “Water infrastructure is called critical infrastructure for a reason. With drinking water in urban areas, lead can be a problem, especially for at-risk populations. Reservoirs need to be covered to inhibit pathogens, such as cryptosporidium. Storm water projects, such as combined sewer overflows (CSOs) cause big problems in North Jersey. There are more than 100 CSOs along New York Harbor. People, animals, and the environment are impacted whenever there is a CSO discharge.”
Applying for Funding. “We have made the loan and project review process as simple as possible for municipalities and MUAs. We also have a Web site (njib.gov) with an application called H2LOans. It is very easy to use. Unlike the paper application of just eight years ago, today you apply online. Your lawyer, engineer, and other collaborators log in and work alongside you. It’s made our loan program much more efficient and accurate. H2LOans allows borrowers and staff to leverage technology to do more with less.”
Upgrading Water Infrastructure. “We should insist that water systems analyze and compare the savings available with normal course repairs versus the costs with non-action. Emergency repairs cost three to 10 times more.”
—Interview by Rosemary Dreger Carey