WRDA conference talks begin

Nov 22, 2013

—Waterways bills would reform planning for Corps of Engineers projects

The House and Senate began conference talks last Wednesday to reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act. The bill provides authorization for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build, upgrade or repair sea ports, locks and dams in major rivers, wetland projects and other major water infrastructure needs.

The House and Senate passed comparable bills that would require the Corps of Engineers to eliminate projects from its books that have not received funding in more than five years or begun construction. The Corps has a backlog of about $60 billion for construction projects.

The two bills also require the Corps to spend less than three years and $3 million in feasibility studies for any project. For inland waterway projects, both the House and Senate also place more demands on the Corps to keep projects on time.

Unlike most legislation facing the current Congress, the WRDA bills in both chambers passed with significant bipartisan margins. The legislation is expected to create roughly 500,000 jobs.

The opening statements indicated the conference talks on WRDA could go quickly. However, the Senate will take a two-week break for Thanksgiving, indicating that most issues would be negotiated privately as lawmakers try to get the legislation back to the floor for final votes before the end of the year.

The WRDA conference talks also coincided Wednesday with a tour in Panama by Vice President Joe Biden and a congressional delegation who are examining the new lock for the Panama Canal under construction that should be completed late next year. The new lock will allow the canal to both transfer more ships and allow larger ships to move from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. In doing so, that requires more port upgrades in the eastern U.S. to dock ships that need deeper draft levels.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), noted 160 groups had sent letters supporting the Senate version of the WRDA bill.

“Our bill is supported by a wide array of stakeholders from the AFL-CIO to the Chamber of Commerce, from the American Road and Transportation Builders to the Associated Equipment Distributors, and from the Farm Bureau to the Nature Conservancy.”

Boxer noted the critical role federal levees play in protecting property from floods.

“WRDA invests in levees and flood control infrastructure across the country,” Boxer said. “These investments safeguard the public and spur our economy. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, levees helped in the prevention of more than $141 billion in flood damages in 2011 alone.”

The last WRDA bill was in 2007, though several lawmakers noted that WRDA bills in general are expected to be reauthorized every two years. “It’s past time for a new bill,” Boxer said.

The Congressional Budget Office pegged the cost of the Senate WRDA bill at $5.7 billion through 2018. For a full 10-year funding projection, WRDA would cost $12.2 billion. The bill would spend about $3.4 billion on 27 water resource projects from 2014- 2018.

The Senate bill also allows the Corps to set up a $100 million-a-year grant program for states and local governments to fund levee improvements. Another $500 million would be set aside for loans or loan guarantees for local and state governments to complete water infrastructure projects.

The House bill authorizes 23 new construction projections costing about $8 billion in federal funds with about $5 billion in state or local matches. That would just begin to scratch the surface on the Army Corps of Engineers’ todo list. The Corps has a backlog of at least 30 major projects that would cost $27 billion to build, including $17 billion in federal money. The Corps also has another 200 active studies waiting for funding for a broader group of backlogged projects.

The House 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 house bill’s streamlining, arguing that those provisions wipe away serious environmental impact studies.

One thing neither bill does is allow barge operators to raise fuel fees that go to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Barge operators have offered to increase the fuel fees to improve waterway spending, but lawmakers from both chambers balked at trying to get those fees increased.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), cited that the House bill would streamline the way the Corps uses the National Environmental Protection Act (NE- PA). “All too often, the NEPA process is used by special interests for obstruction and as a magnet for red tape and litigation,” Hastings said.

Hastings criticized a provision in the Senate bill that would give the Corps of Engineers more authority to change the purposes of a dam waterways project without congressional approval or input from electric ratepayers.

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH), said the water infrastructure provides America farmers and manufacturers a unique competitive advantage. Still, he noted that the U.S. must reinvest in infrastructure because countries such as China and Brazil are investing more in their own infrastructure. Gibbs also praised the bills, which he said “ensure Congress maintains its responsibility without resorting to pork-barrel politics.”

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), noted the House bill offers more flexibility for local stakeholders to help contribute funds to projects. He also pointed out that more than 80 percent of agricultural exports are delivered through water shipping. — Chris Clayton, DTN