PRESIDENT Barack Obama signed the Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 last Tuesday.
This final reauthorization bill, which will improve the reliability and efficiency of the U.S. inland waterway system, was passed by the House on May 20 and the Senate on May 22.
The bill has been a major priority for U.S. agricultural groups as it provides crucial infrastructure improvements on the nation's waterways, which transport as much as 60% of U.S. grain to be exported.
WRRDA will hold the Army Corps of Engineers project delivery system to a greater degree of accountability by prioritizing authorized improvements based on the risk of failure and economic return to the nation.
It includes four recommendations that originally were issued in the Capital Development Plan, which was developed in concert with the Corps and unanimously endorsed by the congressionally chartered Inland Water Users Board in 2010. These are:
1. Federalizing the Olmsted Locks & Dams project, which would create a permanent cost-sharing arrangement for the remaining cost of the project, with 85% of funding taken from the general fund and 15% taken from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (an increase from the current 50/50 split between federal dollars and money users pay into the trust fund). This would make approximately $105 million per year available for other trust fund priority projects;
2. Redefining major rehabilitation projects eligible for funding through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund — increasing the current level defined in the law from $14 million to $20 million and also adjusting this level annually to account for inflation;
3. Prioritizing projects solely on the basis of risk of failure and economic benefit to the U.S., and
4. Reforming project delivery to achieve on-time and on-budget performance.
WRRDA also establishes minimum authorization levels for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and requires 100% of funds to be spent on port infrastructure improvements by 2025.
The law also includes provisions related to the Spill Prevention, Control & Countermeasures Rule, allowing farmers to self-certify more on-farm fuel storage, up to 6,000 gal.
"We are happy that WRRDA is now signed into law; however, we've been in this position before. Our locks and dams are antiques, and we have to modernize them. Authorizations to do so are nice, but we will never get anywhere without funding," Illinois Corn Growers Assn. president Gary Hudson said.
Agricultural groups also voiced support for Congress to move forward on a barge diesel fuel user fee, which would provide additional revenue to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. By increasing this tax by 6-9 cents/gal. of fuel, the industries using the waterways would be able to provide the funds needed for improving and maintaining the infrastructure on which they rely.
Notably, all parties that would be subject to this tax have publicly stated their support and recognition that the revenue raised would play a vital role in maintaining infrastructure that's key to their economic well-being.
"Farmers and other U.S. industries have the means to increase our exports and build economic activity within the U.S., but we simply cannot export more goods without upgrading our locks and dams," Hudson said. "The funding to accomplish these goals will come from a barge user fee that industry supports but is noticeably absent from this bill."
National Corn Growers Assn. president Martin Barbre added, "The need is urgent; U.S. farmers and businesses rely upon this transportation channel to create economic opportunities at home and supply markets abroad. Now, it is imperative that we continue our momentum related to waterways improvements by passing the diesel user fee."
In remarks during the bill signing, Obama also called on the same bipartisan group that brought forward a final WRRDA package to continue to work on a final transportation infrastructure bill.
"If Congress fails to act, then federal funding for transportation projects runs out by the end of the summer," he said. "That means more than 100,000 active projects (and) nearly 700,000 jobs would be at risk."