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Senate EPW Committee advances waterway infrastructure bill

TAGS: Policy
Louisville USACE Olmstead Lock and Dam near Louisville
Legislation reforms funding cost-share model for rehabilitating inland waterway systems and increases Corps' oversight.

The Senate Environment & Public Works Committee (EPW) advanced out of committee Wednesday a bipartisan package supporting the nation’s water infrastructure. The two bipartisan bills — the America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) of 2020 and the Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 — passed out of the Senate EPW Committee and include provisions such as efforts to provide more flood control resources to small and rural communities and to increase Army Corps of Engineers oversight. The package also reforms the funding cost-share model for rehabilitating the nation’s inland waterway system.

The legislation, which authorizes $17 billion for various infrastructure projects, would “enhance U.S. agriculture’s competitiveness, contribute to the overall efficiency of the U.S. transportation system and promote overall U.S. economic growth and job creation.” 

The committee voted 21-0 to approve S. 3591, dubbed AWIA, which includes a section (Section 1069) that would increase to 65% the federal government’s share for funding construction and major rehabilitation of each inland waterway navigation project. The remaining 35% would be paid by commercial users of the inland waterways, such as barge and towboat operators, through barge diesel fuel taxes deposited into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF). Currently, the cost-share formula is an even 50/50 split.

The National Grain & Feed Association (NGFA) commended members for the cost-share formula changes.

In a statement submitted for the record prior to the Senate EPW committee action, NGFA said “changing the cost-share formula for inland waterway construction and major rehabilitation of navigation projects, as proposed in the AWIA 2020 draft legislation, is both a necessary and prudent policy reform for which there is a precedent. This provision would expedite such projects and bring the U.S. inland waterways transportation system into the 21st century.”

NGFA noted that the majority of U.S. locks and dams have outlived their 50-year design life, and most are incapable of handling modern 1,200 ft. barge tows, while still others are requiring more maintenance that costs shippers valuable time and resources.

Since 2014, Congress has committed to examining and reauthorizing water infrastructure policies and projects every two years as part of the Water Resources Development Act process. NGFA noted that there were several precedents for changing the cost-share formula. In 2016, Congress changed the cost-share formula for deep draft ports from 50% general revenue and 50% non-federal sponsor funding to 75% general revenue and 25% non-federal sponsor. Congress also previously altered the cost-share for both the Olmsted Locks & Dam and Chickamauga Lock projects to increase the federal share.

The bill also requires the Corps to conduct comprehensive studies of both the upper and lower sections of the Missouri River and to use the findings to submit a report to Congress outlining one comprehensive strategy for addressing flood risk in areas affected by the 2019 Missouri River flooding. It also requires the Corps to submit a report to Congress listing all water resource projects that are either $100 million over budget or five years behind schedule.

The bill also makes temporary flood control structures permanent and gives the Corps the authority to review whether temporary flood control structures it has constructed should be made permanent and allows the local cost-share for making them permanent to be waived for communities that are small, financially disadvantaged or at risk of recurring flooding.

The Senate bill also gives the Corps authority to recommend funding a project that does not have national economic development benefits, provided that the project: (1) is in a small, disadvantaged or rural area, (2) is necessary to protect long-term life-safety and economic viability and (3) has regional or local benefits. Oftentimes, important projects in rural areas and small communities are deprioritized because they are not considered to have national economic benefits.

AWIA 2020 next goes to the Senate floor for consideration, and NGFA urged prompt consideration and passage of the measure. NGFA also is supporting efforts by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee to approve its version of the legislation soon.

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