House Unveils Bill for Water Infrastructure Projects

Backers say the Water Resources Reform and Development Act will cut approval time for much-needed upgrades to ports, inland waterways and flood control projects.
by | September 11, 2013
The port of Baltimore.
The U.S. House version primarily directs the Army Corps of Engineers' policies for projects related to ports and inland waterways as well as flood control. David Kidd

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee revealed its much-awaited water bill Wednesday afternoon, touting the legislation as way to accelerate the approval process for infrastructure projects that are critical to the economy.

Historically, Congress has authorized water resources legislation every two years. The bill primarily directs the Army Corps of Engineers' policies for projects related to ports and inland waterways as well as flood control.

But the last time Congress passed a water bill was in 2007, when it overrode a veto by President George W. Bush, who raised questions about fiscal discipline.

Infrastructure advocates, especially those involved with ports, say Congress' failure to pass a water bill since then has contributed to project delays that are especially troubling, given Panama's upcoming expansion of its canal.

That project will result in much-needed upgrades at many U.S. ports, which will have to accommodate larger ships that will start traveling the seas.

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Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), touting the bill during a Wednesday press conference, said the newly introduced legislation is "about more than just trade; it's about jobs." According to the committee, more than $1.4 trillion in goods travel through U.S. ports each year.

The new legislation, dubbed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act , sets harder deadlines for the Army Corps of Engineers as it reviews water infrastructure projects. It also streamlines the environmental review process.

As Governing previously reported in 2012, it can sometimes take the Corps many years to complete a study for a project, even when it's considered critically important. Governing explained the system last year:

Preparing to dredge a harbor is an enormously complicated process. Such projects must be authorized by Congress, but there’s no guarantee that any funds will be appropriated. Before construction can begin, a project must undergo two sets of impact studies. These studies, run by the Army Corps of Engineers, are major undertakings that can cost millions of dollars and take a decade or more to complete. One of the most egregious examples is Savannah, Ga., which is trying to deepen its port from 42 feet to 48 feet. Earlier this year, the Corps released its final documentation for that project -- after 15 years of study. “This whole process of dredging is completely broken,” says Eugene Pentimonti, a former senior vice president of Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies. “There’s virtually no way for a port to get their facilities dredged in a commercially acceptable time frame, to be able to compete, to use the opportunities it will provide them.”

The House committee's bill requires the Corps to finish its feasibility studies in three years or less. That would be a major victory for state agencies that are often left in limbo as they wait for the Corps to act.

It also deauthorizes older and inactive projects authorized in the 2007 bill that haven't received funding or begun construction, as part of an effort to help clear the Corps' backlog of work. Newly authorized projects will have sunset provisions so that inactive projects are cleared after seven years.

The legislation also has another component that ports should appreciate. For years, port officials have complained that a federal trust fund intended for harbor maintenance and dredging hasn't been fully utilized for that purpose. Instead, Congress has allowed it to build up a balance in order to be counted against the deficit -- despite the fact that shippers pay directly into the fund to keep ports in strong shape.

According to the committee, only about half the $1.8 billion paid by shippers into the fund is actually used for maintenance and dredging each year. The new bill gradually increases the amount of funding that will be spent for the trust fund's intended purpose, and by FY 2020, at least 80 percent of the funds will have to be utilized, according to Shuster.

Ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) also touted the bill, saying the committee backed the legislation on a bipartisan basis.

The House acted slower than the Senate in introducing its water bill. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee introduced and approved its version of the legislation back in March. An amended version of that bill was passed by the full Senate back in May.

That Senate bill required a streamlined environmental review process as well, and it too included a three-year requirement on the Corps' feasibility studies. It also set the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund on a pathway toward greater utilization of its revenue.

Environmental groups generally opposed those streamlining regulations and are likely to be skeptical of the House bill, despite Shuster's insistence that "we didn't eliminate any environmental reviews" and merely streamlined them.

One difference between the House and Senate bills is that the Senate version contained a provision known as the Water Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act that would provide low-interest loans for drinking water and wastewater projects, among other types of infrastructure.

That program was authorized at $250 million over five years in the Senate bill, but it doesn't exist in the House bill. Shuster didn't signal whether he would expect the loan program to be included in the final legislation to emerge from a conference committee. "I don't know if we've made a decision on that," he said.

Shuster also said that the Senate's bill gives more authority to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Office of Management and Budget to prioritize projects, while the House legislation keeps more of that authority within Congress.

In a statement, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was glad to see Democrats and Republicans on the House committee working together. She urged the House to pass the bill quickly so that work can begin on reconciling the two versions.

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