IN a soundly strong 417-3 vote last Wednesday evening, the House passed its Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA).
The Senate passed its waterway bill earlier this year, setting up what is assumed will be a smooth path to conference, final passage and signing into law by the President.
More than 60% of grain grown by U.S. farmers for export is transported via inland waterways, and 95% of farm exports and imports move through U.S. harbors. Accordingly, agricultural groups were overwhelmingly supportive of the bill.
The House bill authorizes 23 new construction projections that cost about $8 billion in federal funds with about $5 billion in state or local matching funds.
The bill establishes a blueprint for future inland waterway expenditures, and although it is supposed to be renewed on a biannual basis, WRRDA has not been updated since 2007.
The authorization process funds specific projects, but WRRDA provides the outline for important reforms to streamline and expedite the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' process for approving much-needed projects to renovate and replace deteriorating locks and dams.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, explained that both the House and Senate versions increased the amount of money collected under the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) to be used for its intended purpose of port maintenance and dredging to widen harbors — something of increasing importance as the Panama Canal expansion could bring larger ships in U.S. waterways.
The Senate version calls for 100% of the money collected by HMTF to be used on transportation, whereas the House version calls for 80% of those funds to be designated accordingly by 2020.
Steenhoek said a new source of revenue will be needed to provide funding for those activities HMTF currently pays for that are unrelated to transportation.
The bill also looks to streamline the process for Corps projects and reduce project completion times. Specifically, it limits Corps feasibility studies to three years and $3 million, whereas these studies currently have no time limit or budgetary cap.
WRRDA also requires district, division and headquarters personnel to concurrently conduct reviews of a feasibility study, eliminating the current practice of sequential reviews. It also streamlines environmental reviews by naming a lead and requiring concurrent reviews. In addition, it consolidates studies and eliminates duplicative analyses.
Overall, the bill expedites the evaluation and processing of permits, giving the Corps permanent authority to accept funds from non-federal public interests and public utility companies.
The newly passed resolution includes verbiage to restructure the cost-sharing provision as it relates to the Olmsted Lock & Dam project on the Ohio River, which remains significantly over budget.
A statement from the National Grain & Feed Assn. (NGFA) pointed out that the Olmsted project has consumed a disproportionate share of barge fuel user fees paid by the barge towing industry and has delayed other lock improvement projects on the inland waterway system.
Under the newly passed WRRDA, the federal government would sustain 75% of the costs to finish the Olmsted project, with only 25% coming from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF). The Senate version calls for 100% of the project to be paid by general treasury revenue instead of cost-shared 50/50 through IWTF.
"To continue pulling 50% of the funds from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund is to punish lock and dam users for poor time and money management on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers and its team," Illinois Corn Growers Assn. president Paul Taylor said.
A change in the funding formula also makes funds available to begin modernization projects on the LaGrange Lock & Dam and Lock 25 in Windham, Mo.
"Under WRRDA, we see finished lock and dam upgrades at Lock 25 in 2029 and at LaGrange in 2031. This is a cost savings of 35 years and 39 years, respectively," Taylor said. "Although we applaud the House for this action, we also see Olmsted fully funded by the federal government in the Senate-passed WRDA, which shortens the time for new locks and dams even further. We are anxious to address that important difference in conference committee."
Something pushed by the industry but not included in the final House or Senate bills was a voluntary barge diesel fuel user fee to secure the cost-share funding needed to actually construct and renovate the locks on the inland waterway system that would be authorized under the waterway legislation.
NGFA president Randy Gordon said stakeholders will "continue to pursue a legislative vehicle" that would allow for the voluntary tax increase. One possible vehicle would be comprehensive tax reform legislation that could come up.