The Water Resources Development Act would give permission for funding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works programs, which include dredging ports to enable passage by large vessels and maintaining navigational safety infrastructure.
The U.S. Senate on Thursday easily passed legislation that would reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act by a vote of 95 to 3.
WRDA identifies about $9 billion worth of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ navigation, flood control and environmental restoration projects eligible for Congress to fund.
Maritime industry officials and key lawmakers are eager to get the legislation signed into law and put the reauthorization process on a two-year cycle. Congress in 2014 passed a WRDA bill with many cost-control and project-delivery reforms after a seven-year hiatus. Until 2000, Corps of Engineers programs were authorized every two years.
The 2016 WRDA will would update the cost-share formula for harbor deepening projects from 45 feet to 50 feet, extend funding authorization for donor and energy-transfer ports, and streamline and expedite procedures for completing existing projects, as well as authorize dredging projects to deepen navigation channels in eight ports.
The new cost-share formula would establish 50-feet as the depth where the federal government would cover 75 percent of the dredging cost and local sponsors would pay the balance for deepening projects. For three decades, deepening projects for depths greater than 45 feet have been split 50/50. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 revised the cost-share depth to 50 feet from 45 feet for maintenance dredging. The Senate provision aligns new construction and maintenance dredging policies and reflects the fact that the standard depth at many ports must be 50 feet to accommodate next-generation cargo vessels without restriction.
The Senate bill also extends the authorization period by two years for so-called “donor” ports and energy transfer ports to be eligible for funding from the Harbor Maintenance Tax. WRRDA provided some equity to ports that require minimal dredging to maintain their authorized depths so that they could use funds for other improvements. Ports with a large percentage of their throughput tied to energy products such as oil also qualified to use HMT funding for alternative uses, such as berth deepening and environmental remediation.
WRRDA authorizes appropriators to direct $50 million of HMT money each fiscal year over four years for alternative uses at ports that paid more into the system, as well as energy ports, with four additional years of such authorization if Congress hit the appropriation target for HMT spending in each of the first four years. But Congress came up short in fiscal year 2015, primarily because appropriators had almost wrapped up the annual Energy and Water Development appropriation bill by the time WRRDA passed in the summer of 2014.
Missing the target means that donor-port authorization would expire in 2018, but the Senate bill permanently extends that authorization.
Harbor deepening projects that would get the green light for federal funding include the Port of Charleston in South Carolina and Port Everglades in Florida. Those projects have undergone lengthy feasibility studies and have been recommended to Congress as worthwhile to pursue by the Corps of Engineers. Once authorized, federal funds for project construction can be sought through annual Energy and Water Development appropriations bills.
It remains unclear whether the House of Representatives will vote on its version of the WRDA bill before adjourning at the end of the month so lawmakers can focus on campaigning for the November election. The South Carolina and Florida delegations are putting on a full-court press to secure passage, sending a letter from 142 members calling on the Republican leadership to schedule a vote, and some political observers say it could happen next week.