The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation designed to facilitate projects related to ports, inland waterways and flood control Wednesday night.
The bipartisan bill, approved 417-3, authorizes a slew of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects and outlines plans to accelerate their approval. Historically Congress passes legislation for this every two years, but the United States hasn't had a new federal water bill since 2007.
"It has been six long years since we have passed water resources legislation," said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.), ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in a statement. "The bipartisan bill approved today stops the finger in the dike solutions to our water infrastructure challenges and instead invests in these corridors of commerce which create jobs and support increased economic opportunity."
Lawmakers touted the bill has one that cuts red tape and speeds up projects by setting firm deadlines and eliminating duplicative and unnecessary studies. "Reforming the way our country builds and maintains vital ports and waterways – streamlining the process, cutting out wasteful earmarks, and increasing accountability – is good for families and taxpayers," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
The legislation also deauthorizes $12 billion of old projects that Congress authorized prior to the 2007 version of the legislation. The new law includes sunset provisions to ensure that newly-authorized projects don't sit on the backlog for years.
The legislation requires the Army Corps of Engineers to complete feasibility studies in less than three years, at a cost of less than $3 million. That will likely help many state and local partners -- especially ports -- who are often left waiting for years before pursuing projects related to water infrastructure.
The legislation is urgent now because many U.S. ports are working to complete expansions and renovations in anticipation of the widening of the Panama Canal slated for completion in 2015. American ports want to be able to accommodate larger ships that will come with the canal's new capacity.
But, as Governing reported last year, it can take many years just to complete a study for a port project, even when it's considered critically important.
The House bill also target the funds collected via the federal harbor maintenance tax to improve shipping channels. Port officials and shipping companies have long complained that the fees they pay -- which are supposed to be used for dredging and other maintenance -- are squirreled in a trust fund to be counted against the deficit. The bill directs the funds back toward dredging and other maintenance.
“Increased investments are needed to better maintain and improve the transportation infrastructure on our three coasts and the Great Lakes, linking America to the global marketplace," said Kurt Nagle, CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, in a statement praising the bill.
The Senate passed its version of a water bill back in May.