WASHINGTON — A key Senate committee appears key to taking a bipartisan approach to legislation authorizing major port and inland waterways projects, but a new Water Resources Development Act still could be more than a year away.
Republicans said they were eager to work with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., after the Environment and Public Works Committee chair shared with fellow members a working draft for the long-delayed bill. Democrats and Republicans pointed to how a bipartisan approach led to the Senate passing a surface transport bill, while the House failed to approve its own version.
“I think we have tremendous opportunity to make progress in the short term,” Boxer said at the Senate hearing on Nov. 15.
Republicans and Democrats appear united in their aim to speed up Army Corp of Engineers’ projects, stop funding diversions of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and prioritize projects. Sen. David Vitter said the Army Corps construction process “is just downright broken,” as project studies generally take six to 10 years to complete.
The Louisiana congressman, who is expected to replace Rep. James Inhofe as ranking Republican on the EPW committee, also decried the raiding of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund as “a tax on commerce.” About half, or roughly $700 million, of the Harbor Maintenance Tax collected annually is used to plug other budget shortfalls, and a $7 billion surplus is expected by the end of fiscal 2013.
A new WRDA, last passed in 2007, is needed to reauthorize the Port of Savannah’s harbor deepening project, along with harbor widening and deepening projects in Freeport, Texas; Canaveral Harbor, Fla.; and Boston harbor. The bill also is needed to authorize a key navigation project at the Port of Jacksonville, known as Mile Point, and create a site for dredged materials at the Port of Baltimore.
Superstorm Sandy and the summer drought highlighted the nation's water infrastructure shortfalls on the coast and inland, providing some impetus to passing a new WRDA. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., shared pictures from his storm-wracked state and said Army Corps projects helped reduce flooding damage. “We need to build more of these projects to reduce future losses,” he said.
Although the signs are encouraging from the Senate side, the House hasn’t made any major moves suggesting it plans to create its own version of the bill, said Dave Sanford, director of navigation policy and legislation at the American Association of Port Authorities. But Rep. Bill Shuster, a likely contender to chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, said passing WRDA is a priority, and the House tends to move the bill faster than the Senate “because they have needier members,” Sanford said.
WRDA “is usually passed in the second session of Congress, but there are still a lot of negotiations and fiscal cliff discussions to be had before this bill sees the light of day,” he said. Congress could still “kick it down to 2014.”