House-Senate WRDA conference begins

Congressional leaders optimistic waterways bill can make it to President's desk with strong bipartisan support.

The House-Senate conference committee began work Nov. 20 on resolving the differences between the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R. 3080) and the Senate’s version of the water resources legislation.

It’s been six years since Congress last approved a WRDA bill, a process that is supposed to take place every two years. Leaders from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee both shared optimism of moving the bill through regular order and a final agreement can be sent to the President's desk for final passage.

The House passed its version in October by an overwhelming 417-3 and the Senate passed its version in May by a vote of 83-14. House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Schuster (R., Pa.) said although there are differences between the two chambers' bills, he's confident the conference committee can produce a product and pass it overwhelmingly again.

Shuster touted 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 also added it de-authorizes $12 billion in funding while only reauthorizing $8 billion.

Another welcome component from both sides is reforms to 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 Committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) said the Senate version moves toward a full use of the HMTF and "sets priorities that makes 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. "I am very optimistic we can come to agreement and send this bill to the President's desk." Moving forward, she shared that staff level meetings will be important in keeping the momentum going on accomplishing that goal.

Rep. Rodney Davis (R., Ill.) said in his comments to the conference committee that his district in Western Illinois with some of the nation's most productive farmland depends on effective waterways to stay competitive. He cited that 81% of agricultural exports are waterborne and trade volume is expected to double not once, but twice by 2030, making passage crucial.

Included in the legislation is language authored by Davis and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.) that authorizes the creation of a pilot program that would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to identify 15 water resources development projects eligible to be financed through public-private partnerships. Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate 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 and take pressure off the Army Corps of Engineers and taxpayers and "compel vital water projects to completion" by finding creative ways to fund those projects.

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