Waterways improvement act passes in Senate

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The Senate on May 15, by a vote of 83 to 14, approved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which would authorize inland waterway navigation projects while reforming and streamlining the US Army Corps of Engineers’ process for approving and implementing such projects.

A multi-faceted lobbying effort in support of Senate passage of the bill was spearheaded and coordinated by Waterways Council Inc. As part of that effort, the National Grain and Feed Association mobilized support from a range of agricultural producer and agribusiness associations.

The final version of the bill unveiled by Senator Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, ranking member on the committee, included several provisions strongly supported by the NGFA that were derived from a separate bill, the Reinvesting in Vital Economic Rivers and Waterways (RIVER) Act sponsored by Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania.

RIVER Act provisions incorporated into the Senate-passed WRDA bill include utilizing federal funds to pay the remaining costs associated with completing the Olmstead lock and dam project near the mouth of the Ohio river, which is far behind schedule and over budget. This provision means the remainder of the costs will not include matching funds derived from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund that consists of industry-paid barge diesel fuel user-fee revenues, thereby freeing up approximately $84 million in the next fiscal year alone for other long-delayed lock-and-dam projects. Additionally, the dollar threshold for major rehabilitation projects to qualify for Inland Waterways Trust Fund matching funds would be raised to $20 million from the current $14 million.

Language to accelerate Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund spending to dredge harbors and access channels also was included in the bill. The provision gradually would shift harbor maintenance revenues through 2020, transferring an additional $100 million annually to meet maintenance dredging needs. The compromise was reached after the Senate Appropriations Committee objected to original language that would have stipulated that revenues coming into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund — currently totaling about $1.76 billion per year — be appropriated solely for maintenance dredging projects in the year in which the harbor taxes were collected. Only about half of current annual harbor tax annual revenues are spent on dredging, with the remainder used for other purposes. Appropriators said the original proposal would have required about $700 million in annual cuts in other water and energy programs.

The WRDA also calls for prioritization of inland waterway navigation projects, specifies improvements in the Army Corps of Engineer’s project delivery and requires the US Fish and Wildlife Service to provide annual reports on multi-agency efforts to halt the spread of the destructive Asian carp.

The bill does not contain provisions of the RIVER Act that would increase the barge diesel fuel user fee from the current 20 cents per gallon to 29 cents to provide the financing necessary to complete priority inland waterway lock-and-dam projects. The Senate deferred on this provision because revenue-generating measures are required to originate in the House of Representatives.

“We need to have an important conversation about how to finance this (inland waterways) system and to keep the inland trust fund sustainable in the long term,” Sen. Casey said during the Senate floor debate. “If we cannot raise revenue in an industry that is asking to pay more so it can invest in its infrastructure, I am afraid the future of our waterways system is in great jeopardy.”

The WRDA also includes two provisions championed by Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. First, the bill would authorize a first-ever study of the entire Mississippi river basin designed to forestall navigation disruptions caused by droughts or flooding, as occurred during the 2012 navigation season. And second, it would establish a five-year pilot program to test the concept of public-private funding partnership agreements to supplement traditional cost-share funding for inland waterway improvement projects. The five-year pilot program is to identify up to 15 previously authorized navigation, flood damage-reduction, and hurricane- and storm-damage reduction projects for which the Army Corps of Engineers and private entities would enter into agreements to decentralize the planning, design and construction process.

No companion bill to the Senate’s WRDA has been introduced in the House, but Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has identified the WRDA as a top priority.
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