Tuesday President Barack Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014. This final reauthorization bill, which will improve the reliability and efficiency of the U.S. inland waterways 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 a crucial step in infrastructure improvements on the nation’s waterways which transport as much as 60% of the nation’s grain exports.
WRRDA will bring a greater degree of accountability to the Army Corps of Engineers project delivery system by prioritizing authorized improvements based upon risk of failure and economic return to the nation. The report includes four recommendations originally issued in the Capital Development Plan which was developed in concert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and unanimously endorsed by the Congressionally-chartered Inland Water Users Board in 2010.
- Federalize the project at the Olmsted Locks and Dams. This 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. (This is an increase from the current 50/50 split between federal dollars and funds paid by users into the IWTF.) This would make approximately $105 million per year available for funding other Trust Fund priority projects.
- Redefine major rehabilitation projects eligible for funding through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, increasing the current level defined in law from $14 million to $20 million. The level would also be adjusted annually to account for inflation.
- Prioritize projects solely upon the basis of risk of failure and economic benefit to the United States.
- Reform project delivery to achieve on-time and on-budget performance.
It also establishes minimum authorization levels for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and requires 100 percent of funds to be spent on port infrastructure improvements by 2025.
The law also includes provisions related to the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures Rule, allowing self-certification by a farmer of more on-farm fuel storage, up to 6,000 gallons.
"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," said Illinois Corn Growers Assn. president Gary Hudson.
Agricultural groups also voiced support for Congress to now move forward on a barge diesel fuel user fee which would provide additional revenue to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. By increasing this tax between six and nine cents per gallon of fuel, the industries using the waterways would be able to provide needed funds for the improvement and maintenance of the infrastructure on which they rely. Notably, all parties which 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 key to their economic well-being.
“Farmers and other U.S. industry 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,” said Hudson. “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.”
During remarks of 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, nearly 700,000 jobs would be at risk.”