A HOUSE-Senate agreement on a new water resources bill provides an $8.2 billion boost to U.S. ports and waterways.
The final version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) was being circulated for committee members' signatures, and the process should be completed during the week of May 21, setting the stage for final votes in both chambers.
The WRDA agreement would streamline waterway projects, expedite environmental review processes and allow for greater private contributions to infrastructure repairs.
The House passed its version in October by a 417-3 vote, and the Senate passed its bill by an 83-17 vote.
Despite overwhelming support, talks had slowed down during conference negotiations. It has been seven years since Congress passed a bill that authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' participation in water conservation and development infrastructure projects throughout the country.
WRDA would increase the amount of funds drawn from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) for maintenance dredging of federal navigation channels and provides equity for ports nationwide. It also includes a set-aside for underserved ports.
The Corps has estimated that America's busiest ports operate at their full capacity less than 35% of the time due, in part, to funding for HMTF being diverted to offset the costs of other unrelated government expenditures.
Congress created HMTF in 1986 to provide funding for harbor and channel dredging, but only half of the funds deposited into HMTF are actually utilized for those purposes. The rest has been repeatedly appropriated by Congress for unrelated expenditures.
The WRDA conference report increases the amount of funding generated each year by HMTF for harbor maintenance activities until it reaches 100% by 2025.
This will provide ports like the Mississippi Gulf port region — which accounts for 58% of soybean exports and 67% of corn exports — with the funds necessary to ensure that the shipping channel is adequately dredged. This will become increasingly important to maintain the ability to handle the deep channel vessels that will transit to the Panama Canal.
The WRDA compromise also includes an amendment that bars the Corps from charging an unprecedented fee for using water from Missouri River reservoirs. The States' Water Rights Act states that charging fees for "surplus water" would violate a state's right to the waters that naturally flow through its boundaries, as recognized by the federal government.
Another amendment sponsored by Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) allows a non-federal interest to receive bankable credit if it carries out operation and maintenance responsibilities for a federal navigation project. That credit could then be applied to future construction costs associated with related projects. This provision gives ports greater flexibility to deepen their channels.
WRDA includes authorization for construction of the Fargo, N.D.-Moorhead, Minn., flood protection project, Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) said. Because of the scale and expense of the plan, federal funding will need to be appropriated each year on an ongoing basis to cover the cost, which will be shared by the local, state and federal governments.
The total cost of the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion project is roughly $1.8 billion, with the federal government assuming $800 million, or 45%. The non-federal share will be split three ways: Minnesota will assume $100 million, and the state of North Dakota and local government will assume the balance at $450 million each.
Overall, WRDA also restructures the inland waterway system to improve project delivery, lower costs and improve project management.
The bill de-authorizes $18 billion of old, inactive projects that were authorized prior to 2007 and also sunsets new authorizations to prevent future project backlogs.
For example, the report directs the federal government to assume more responsibility for the Olmstead Lock & Dam project on the Ohio River near the confluence with the Mississippi River, which is now at a 400% cost overrun. WRDA raises the federal funding responsibility from 50% to 85% (roughly $80-136 million each year) while decreasing the barge company portion from 50% to 15%.
A summary from the Soy Transportation Coalition explains that this will free up approximately $56 million per year to be utilized for other needed projects on the inland waterway system.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the coalition, said he doesn't anticipate any roadblocks that would prevent the full House and Senate from passing the conference agreement or the President from signing the bill.
Steenhoek explained that WRDA "provides authorization, or a blueprint, for how the system will be enhanced. It becomes the strategy for the inland waterway system. The second step, the appropriations step, has historically been more contentious since that is when actual funds are allocated to those projects and activities authorized by WRDA. It's essential to have a WRDA bill passed so that we can proceed to the appropriations step. We are hopeful that the appropriations process will be consistent with the recommendations prescribed in the WRDA conference report."
On May 15, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee unanimously approved the MAP-21 Reauthorization Act (S. 2322), a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the nation's transportation programs for six years at current funding plus inflation.
The committee said the bill provides long-term funding, giving state and local governments the certainty and stability they need to improve and develop the nation's transportation infrastructure.
MAP-21 expires on Sept. 30, and the Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of funds this summer.
S. 2322 will now go to the full Senate for consideration, where it will be combined with measures from the Senate committees on finance, commerce, science and transportation and banking, housing and urban affairs.
Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), chair of the transportation and infrastructure subcommittee, said the work of members on the Senate Finance Committee is "particularly important" for quickly reaching a bipartisan agreement on "a fiscally responsible way to fund these crucial investments in our nation's infrastructure."
The National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., however, noted in its May 15 "Beltway Beef" newsletter that election-year politics could slow movement on the transportation bill.
The article notes that some pundits predict that Congress will take separate action to provide temporary funding for the Highway Trust Fund through Sept. 30 while leaving "the real work on long-term fiscal solvency until after the general election in November."