THE Senate Environment & Public Works Committee recently approved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) proposal introduced by committee chair Barbara Boxer (D., Cal.) and ranking member David Vitter (R., La.).
The measure authorizes water infrastructure and flood control projects and includes agriculture industry-supported changes to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to ensure that all user fees collected annually will be spent solely on port maintenance and dredging projects.
Currently, only about half of the more than $1.8 billion in port fees collected annually fund harbor maintenance, with the rest used for general government spending.
Given the unanimous 18-0 committee vote, WRDA has strong bipartisan support in the Senate, and it could go to a vote on the Senate floor as early as April.
The House, however, probably won't act on waterway funding until this summer.
"WRDA is one of the most important and impressive bipartisan bills to come out of our committee, and I thank chairman Boxer for her leadership getting this done so efficiently," Vitter said. "Our bill will implement real and necessary reforms to the (Army) Corps of Engineers to decrease project delivery time so that folks will be better protected from flooding, and other projects can help jump-start increased commerce."
Other key provisions included in S. 601 would streamline environmental reviews by increasing coordination among involved entities and imposing financial penalties on federal agencies that do not meet deadlines. The expedited environmental review requirements are similar to provisions included in the 2012 surface transportation bill.
WRDA does not address the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and lock and dam infrastructure. Committee leaders have indicated their intent to address inland waterway issues when the bill reaches the Senate floor and after the Senate Finance Committee has the opportunity to provide input on the funding issues, according to the American Soybean Assn. (ASA).
Before heading home for their Easter break, the Senate and House each introduced bipartisan proposals to initiate public/private partnerships for waterway infrastructure.
The Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act -- sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) and Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) in the Senate and Reps. Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.) and Rodney Davis (R., Ill.) in the House -- would create a pilot program to explore agreements between the Corps and private entities as alternatives to traditional models for financing, planning, design and construction.
Up to 15 previously authorized navigation projects and flood, hurricane and storm damage reduction projects would be identified for participation. After projects are chosen, the Corps and private entities would enter into agreements to decentralize the planning, design and construction processes in an effort to speed up project delivery and bring more private investment to water infrastructure projects.
ASA said it supports approaches that will leverage existing and available federal dollars and enable projects to receive funding up front and in lump sum to reduce costs and shorten time frames for project completion.
The Waterways Council also conducted its legislative seminar and Capitol Hill visits in Washington, D.C., during the week of March 18. The Waterways Council is focused on having the major elements of the Capital Development Plan -- which are represented in the WAVE4 and RIVER Act proposals in the House and Senate -- included in WRDA.
The Illinois legislators also introduced the Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act, which would bolster efforts to maintain commercial river traffic during droughts and floods while minimizing the economic toll.
Last year's extreme drought had many consequences, which included low water levels on the mid-Mississippi River earlier this winter. The low levels affected all river transportation stakeholders and, by extension, consumers and people employed directly and indirectly by the river transportation industry.
Illinois Corn Growers Assn. president Paul Taylor said the organization supports the legislation.
"However unfortunate the drought and the low water levels, the situation did provide for an excellent opportunity to illustrate the damage that can be done if the Mississippi River were to shut down due to natural or manmade causes. It's obvious that folks in Washington, D.C., were paying attention," Taylor said. "This bill represents a commonsense approach to learning from what happened this winter and making improvements throughout the system so that, in the future, we can do a better job of keeping America moving."