The bipartisan leadership of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday presented a bill to support investment in water infrastructure, such as ports and inland waterways, and reform how the Army Corps of Engineers conducts feasibility studies and makes project recommendations to Congress.
Congress has not updated the Water Resources Development Act since 2007, which means new projects managed by the Army Corps can't get the green light to receive funding. Traditionally, the legislation is renewed every two or three years.
The House bill is called the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013
. Among the reforms it attempts to achieve are cutting federal red tape and streamlining the project review process to speed up project deployment, and controlling spending.
Maritime interests and shippers have lamented the slow pace of investment to repair locks and dams, maintain the depths and widths of harbor channels and deepen major ports so they can handle next-generation cargo ships more efficiently.
“WRRDA 2013 is the most policy and reform focused legislation of its kind in the last two decades,” Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa. said in a statement. “The bill contains no earmarks and makes major programmatic reforms to increase transparency, accountability, and Congressional oversight of federal water resources development activities. Most importantly, WRRDA is about jobs and improving America’s competitiveness. A strong, effective water transportation network is essential to keeping pace with other nations that are improving their own infrastructure networks and gaining ground in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.”
In May, the Senate approved a WRDA reauthorization bill.
WRDA simply codifies the priorities of Congress, but does not include any funding. Projects and the Army Corps' civil works program are funded through the appropriations process.
The House bill sets hard deadlines and cost caps on Army Corps feasibility studies, which are used to determine if there is a federal interest in a project, the potential economic benefits, costs, and environmental impact. Many projects take 15 years or more from concept to final approval. Under the bill, the Army Corps would operate under the 3-3-3 principle of completing projects within three years, for no more than $3 million and making all three levels - local, regional and headquarters - of management assess projects simultaneously rather than passing reports up the chain of command one step at a time. The provision essentially codifies policy implemented by the Army Corps in 2012 aimed at completing studies in three years or less, at a cost of no more than $3 million and fitting them in a three-ring binder.
Taking a page from reforms in last year's MAP-21 surface transportation reauthorization, the bill requires concurrent, rather than consecutive, reviews by other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Fish and Wildlife Service.
For the first time in the 40-year history of WRDA, the bill would de-authorize $12 billion in inactive projects on the books to offset new authorizations. It also includes a seven-year sunset provision for projects to move forward or be taken off the Army Corps' project list to prevent future backlogs.
Currently, the Olmstead lock and dam project, which is still not completed after 25 years, is sucking up 100 percent of the fuel tax revenues collected in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The bill would instead fund three-quarters of Olmstead work through appropriations and the balance with money from the trust fund to avoid the requirement that 50 percent of money for waterways projects come from the trust fund.
The bill also increases the ability of states and other non-federal stakeholders to contribute their own funds to advance authorized studies and projects as well as the evaluation and processing of permits, and creates a Water Infrastructure Public Private Partnership program to help finance projects.
In addition, it authorizes dredging and other investments in several ports.
One of the biggest differences between the House and Senate bills is that the House would not cede congressional authority to authorize projects, whereas as the Senate voted to allow the Army Corps and Office of Management and Budget to self-authorize projects that have been reviewed in an effort to speed up approvals.
The bill also addresses the shortfall in maintenance spending because Congress has only authorized 50 percent of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be used for its intended purpose. The House bill increases the amount to be tapped from the trust fund to 65 percent and then inches it up 2 percent every year so that by 2020 80 percent of the dollars are spent on harbor improvements.
"The sad state of affairs is that we're starting to fall behind because our infrastructure, our locks, our dams, our levees, our ports are not where they should be," Rep. Bob Gibbs of Ohio, chairman of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, said at a press conference. "So we’re starting to experience slow downs, and the possibility of complete shut downs that will definitely effect our economy and the cost of moving things in and out of this country."
Ranking member Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., praised Chairman Shuster for building consensus for the bill in a collegial process with both parties and said the committee's collaboration is a model for future cooperation on future issues, the most pressing of which is the long-term reauthorization of a surface transportation bill with new revenue sources.
Committee members suggested the bill would sail through the committee to a floor vote. If approved by the full House it would go to a conference committee to iron out differences with the Senate bill. - Eric Kulisch