Water bill passes House easily

Oct 25, 2013

—Lawmakers declare need for jobs, export competitiveness

Despite opposition from conservative groups in Washington, the House passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act 417-3 late Wednesday.

The Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, tells the Army Corps of Engineers how to spend its money on mandatory programs. Over the past decade, the Corps has spent an average of $5 billion annually on waterway construction projects based on WRDA authorization. The House bill adds “Reform” to the title, calling it the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, or “WRRDA.”

The Senate approved its waterways legislation with an 83-14 vote last May.

Agriculture and construction groups, port authorities and inland waterway trade associations all backed the bill. Opposition came mostly from many of the same conservative and taxpayer watchdog groups such as Heritage Action. Nonetheless, the House came out in force for the bill.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, praised the bipartisan majority that the bill garnered and credited House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-PA.

“Reforming the way our country builds and maintains vital ports and waterways—streamlining the process, cutting out wasteful earmarks, and increasing accountability—is good for families and taxpayers,” Boehner said. “It’s another example of the people’s House focusing on ways to strengthen our economy and expand opportunity for all Americans, and I’m proud that it passed with a strong bipartisan vote.”

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA, called WRRDA a fiscally responsible bill that would ensure the country remains competitive in the global economy. “Our waterways and ports support over $1.4 trillion worth of goods each year, and over the next few decades our trade volume is expected to grow exponentially,” Cantor said.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-MD, said increasing exports is a bipartisan goal that the WRRDA bill helps accomplish.

The bill also drew fire from some environmental groups who are angry over changes to environmental reviews that some members of Congress argue are too costly and take way too long to complete.

The House bill authorizes 23 new construction projects costing about $8 billion in federal funds with about $5 billion in state or local match.

The House Transportation Committee also touted that the bill sets harder deadlines on costs and time to develop projects while eliminating duplicate studies. The bill also eliminates as many as $12 billion in Corps’ projects that never got off the ground. Environmental groups have complained about the bill’s streamlining, arguing that those provisions wipe away serious impact studies.

One key area House members are trying to address in their version of the bill is the time to get a project developed. It can now take up to 15 years of planning and studies before concrete is poured on some waterway projects. Corps officials are trying to implement a “three-by-three-by-three” plan that would mean three years for studies, kept under $3 million, and three studies or fewer.

The one major proposal not in either the House or Senate version of the bill is an increase in the diesel fuel tax that funds the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The barge industry supports increasing the 20-cent-a-gallon tax as a way to boost revenue for river infrastructure projects. Still, neither chamber took up the proposal, which would now only resurface if Congress moves on a more comprehensive tax reform bill.

The bill also deals with the funding for the controversial Olmsted Locks and Dam project on the Ohio River, a project that has taken more than 20 years to build and seen its costs balloon from $770 million to now $2.9 billion. The Olmsted project has been the subject of hearings and reports over the delays, as well as political wrangling to make sure the locks and dam are eventually completed.

Currently, the trust fund pays 50 percent of the Olmsted cost share. The House bill bumps the federal contribution to 75 percent. That frees up about $89 million a year for other projects. The Senate actually goes further by getting rid of the trust fund match altogether.

Danny Murphy, a soybean farmer from Canton, Miss., and president of the American Soybean Association, said the vote illustrates the broad bipartisan support in the House, Senate and within the administration for upgrading water infrastructure projects.

“With that in mind, we call on the House and the Senate to convene the conference committee as soon as possible so that a final bill can be passed and sent to President Obama before the end of this year,” Murphy said in a release.

“Soybeans are the nation’s leading farm export, and each bushel we export depends on our waterways infrastructure, whether that’s in the form of a river channel, a lock and dam, or a port,” added Murphy. “Unfortunately, in recent years, each of those elements has begun to suffer due to lack of upkeep and investment, and this bill takes a great step to reversing that trend.” — Chris Clayton, DTN