THE House-Senate conference committee began work Nov. 20 on resolving the differences between their two versions of water resources legislation.
It has been six years since Congress last approved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), even though the process is supposed to take place every two years.
Leaders from the House Transportation Committee and Senate Environment & Public Works Committee both expressed optimism about moving the bill through regular order and sending a final agreement to the President's desk for final passage.
The House passed its version in October by an overwhelming 417-3 vote, and the Senate passed its version in May by a vote of 83-14.
House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R., Pa.) said although there are differences between the two chambers' bills, he's confident that the conference committee can produce a product and pass it overwhelmingly again.
Shuster noted that the bill "cuts federal red tape and bureaucracy, streamlines the infrastructure project delivery process, fosters fiscal responsibility and strengthens our water transportation networks to promote America's competitiveness, prosperity and economic growth."
He added that it de-authorizes $12 billion in funding while only reauthorizing $8 billion.
Another welcome component from both sides is reforming the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is funded through user fees, but money collected is currently not being used completely for the purpose it is intended.
Senate Environment & Public Works Committee chair Barbara Boxer (D., Cal.) said the Senate version of WRDA moves toward a full use of the fund and "sets priorities that make sense for larger ports, the smaller ports, the Great Lakes and the sea ports that are large donors to the fund."
Boxer said the day prior to the meeting, she, Shuster and their ranking members met to begin work on the bill, and she is "very optimistic we can come to agreement and send this bill to the President's desk."
Moving forward, she said staff-level meetings will be important for keeping the momentum going to accomplish that goal.
In comments to the conference committee, Rep. Rodney Davis (R., Ill.) said his district in western Illinois, which has some of the nation's most productive farmland, depends on effective waterways to stay competitive. He noted that 81% of agricultural exports are waterborne, and trade volume is expected to double not once but twice by 2030, making WRDA passage crucial.
Included in the legislation is language authored by Davis and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.) authorizing the creation of a pilot program that would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to identify 15 water resource development projects eligible to be financed through public/private partnerships. Similar legislation was introduced by Sens. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) and was included in the Senate version.
Davis said the pilot projects will help reduce the $60 billion in project backlogs, take pressure off the Corps and taxpayers and "compel vital water projects to completion" by finding creative ways to fund those projects.