American Shipper

House passes water infrastructure bill

The Water Resources Development Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday and will now go to a House-Senate conference committee tasked with merging each chamber’s bill into a single version.

   The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) reauthorization by a vote of 399 to 25.
   The Senate passed its version of WRDA two weeks ago and negotiators from each chamber will now meet to reconcile the differences between the two versions, which likely will occur during the lame duck congressional session following the Nov. 8 election.
   The legislation provides a spending road map for appropriators to use in the next couple fiscal years for funding the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works programs for harbor deepening, maintenance dredging of navigation channels, flood control, coastal restoration and upgrades to locks and dams on inland waterways. Lawmakers are not bound to follow the guidance, so actual funding for programs and projects may differ.
   Among the priority projects the legislation approves is deepening the main channels at the Port of Charleston and Port Everglades.
   Maritime industry representatives expressed satisfaction that Congress appears to be reverting to past practice of renewing a water infrastructure bill every two years. Until a WRDA reform bill was enacted in 2014, it had been seven years since the previous reauthorization, which led to a backlog of projects and no policy changes to improve project outcomes. Year 2000 was the last time that a WRDA bill was passed on a two-year cycle. Among the accomplishments of the 2014 legislation was putting Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues on a path to full utilization rather than having half the money diverted for other government needs.
   “Ensuring the viability and effectiveness of our nation’s deep-draft navigation infrastructure is fundamental to a sound economy,” Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities, said in a statement. “WRDA 2016 helps do that by getting Congress back to the business of regularly addressing the needs of our ports and other waterway infrastructure.”
   Neither the House or Senate bills included a provision to create a public-private partnership that could have imposed waterway tolls or lockage fees that waterway advocacy groups said would have an adverse impact on the cost-sharing mechanism for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Under the 2014 WRDA bill, commercial operators increased their user fee by 45 percent to 29 cents per gallon of fuel as a way to increase investment in inland waterway lock and dam infrastructure.
   The bill does include a provision to study the benefits of removing the Corps of Engineers from managing the inland waterway transportation system. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., introduced the language because of frustration that authorized projects get delayed for years, including seven lock projects on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway System that have been approved since 2007.
   “Despite an 80-year-old navigation system, we have projects that continue to wait 10 or 20 years to get off the ground. The Army Corps has shown us time and time again how its own bureaucracy and failure to understand the economic significance of lock and dam projects have prevented them from effectively managing the Inland Waterway Trust Fund,” Davis said. “This is unacceptable and it’s time for a change. Our farmers need, and taxpayers deserve, a reliable system to move their products to market.”
   The study, to be conducted by the Comptroller General, is to look at the costs and benefits of transferring management of the Inland Waters Trust Fund to a not-for-profit or a government-owned corporation.
   A partisan dispute over how to pay for emergency remediation of the lead-contaminated drinking water system in Flint, Mich. threatened to prevent WRDA from clearing the House until a compromise was reached earlier this week. Some of the “no” votes came from House lawmakers upset that a provision was removed by Republican leaders that would have taken the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund off-budget in a decade so that it could be protected for its intended use.
   “The House and Senate now need to finish their work and send a final WRDA measure to the President before the end of the year,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said. “We can’t afford to delay this critical bill.”