Like favorable winds for a ship sailing out of harbor, bipartisan optimism billows behind Congress’s drafting of a long-delayed port and inland waterways bill.
But the journey to adopting a Water Resources Development Act could be long and plagued with lulls, as Congress turns its attention to averting the so-called fiscal cliff and tackling other legislation. And a storm is brewing between the House and Senate over how to authorize port and inland waterway projects.
Meanwhile, half a dozen ports are waiting for the go-ahead from Congress to break ground on navigation projects. Without the bill, the Port of Savannah can’t begin its $652 million harbor-deepening project, and a navigation issue will continue to prevent large container ships from calling at Jacksonville nearly two-thirds of the day. Port projects in Baltimore; Boston; Freeport, Texas; and Cape Canaveral, Fla., also hinge on the bill.
With 26 waterway projects already in motion and only one awaiting WRDA authorization, the barge industry is focusing more on increasing funding and speeding up projects. Unless Congress lifts its ban on earmarks, the template for future WRDA legislation likely will be determined by how the House and Senate decide to choose which projects get done this go-round.
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,” said Dave Sanford, director of navigation policy and legislation at the American Association of Port Authorities. Congress could still “kick it down to 2014.”
It’s not all red sky in the morning, however. Senate Republicans and Democrats appear more concerned about speeding up Army Corps of Engineers projects, rather than picking partisan fights. Key Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee pledged to work with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., after she unorthodoxly shared the working draft of the bill with fellow members and the public.
There is good reason to see the bipartisan tone as more than just post-election good cheer in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Boxer and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking committee member, didn’t let sharp political differences prevent them from spearheading the successful push to pass a surface transportation bill earlier this year. But the Republican-led House failed to pass and had to use a procedural maneuvering — a highway funding extension — to begin conferencing with Senate.
“I think we have tremendous opportunity to make progress in the short term,” Boxer said at a Nov. 15 Senate hearing.
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. While sharing blown-up photographs of his storm-wracked state, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J, said the damage could have been even worse without Army Corps defenses against flooding. “We need to build more of these projects to reduce future losses,” he said at the hearing.
Further inland, the Army Corps’ plans to reduce water flows from a Missouri River reservoir will exacerbate drought conditions, further jeopardizing barge traffic on the Mississippi River. Waterway operators and shippers want Congress and President Obama to speed up the Army Corps’ removal of drought-exposed hazardous rock formation and look at other ways to curb low water levels.
The understanding of the importance of waterways infrastructure hasn’t always translated completely to younger generations of Congress, said Mike Toohey, CEO and president of the Waterways Council, an association advocating inland waterway investment. “As we face a drought crisis in the Midwest, there is a re-emergence of focus” on maintaining and expanding the infrastructure. “It’s probably in its infancy, but it’s coming.”
Toohey is encouraged that Rep. Bill Shuster, a likely contender to chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, would make passing WRDA a major priority if he gains the gavel. Although the House has yet to begin drafting a bill, the chamber tends to move the bill faster than the Senate “because they have needier members,” Sanford said.
The Senate appears to be more open to authorizing the projects themselves by using a cost-benefit analysis and only considering initiatives that have the go-ahead from the Obama administration. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor think such an approach smacks too much of earmarks, and the latter wants a third party to determine which project should be authorized, “so neither side is guilty of slipping in earmarks,” Sanford said.
Port funding is granted separately from WRDA through the annual appropriations process, but the bill sets the stage for which projects will get funded.
Compared to highway projects, proposed water projects go through a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis, and they “are scrutinized, arguably, to a greater extent than any other capital investment program in the government,” said Amy Larson, president and CEO of the National Waterways Conference.
Congress’s deferral of project authorization to the Obama administration has slowed the construction pipeline, and the president’s priorities “have not been established through an open, deliberate process,” in contrast to how the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee historically picks projects, she said.
The House and Senate are more likely to come to an agreement on speeding up Army Corps projects and boosting funding. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said the Army Corps construction process “is just downright broken,” as project studies generally take six to 10 years to complete. Getting more out of taxpayer dollars by streamlining project processes likely will find favor in the House, too. House Republicans got language speeding up construction projects into the $105 billion surface transportation bill.
There are several proposals on how to speed up water projects. The AAPA wants to eliminate the external peer review because the group says it adds time and costs but doesn’t uncover anything the Army Corps didn’t spot already. The American Society of Civil Engineers, unsurprisingly, wants more independent peer review. In an effort to speed up projects, Vitter will likely push more project management responsibilities away from the federal level to states.
Reforming the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund also will take hold in both chambers. The House this year passed legislation seeking to end the diversion of dredging dollars to plug other budget gaps, and more recently, Vitter called the raiding of the HMTF a “tax on commerce.” About half, or roughly $700 million, of the tax on imported goods goes toward filling shortfalls, and the HMTF is expected to spill over with a nearly $7 billion surplus by the end of fiscal 2013.
But even the most strongly worked language forbidding raids of the HMTF coffers can’t guarantee appropriators won’t dip their hands into the fund. The only true fix is for Congress to get its fiscal house in order so the budget holes won’t need to be plugged, and there is some hope a Grand Bargain — an effort to stop $7 trillion worth of spending cuts and tax increases over the next decade — could do just that.
It’s also possible that such a grand deal could include an overhaul of water-based infrastructure programs. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s yet-to-be-introduced “American Waterworks Act” could be that overhaul. The Tennessee Republican’s legislation mirrors much of the WRDA working draft, with calls for HMTF reform and speeding up Army Corps projects. Reflecting the desires of the barge industry, his bill would expand the Inland Waterway Trust Fund through a fuel tax hike and increase the number of projects it could take on by shifting the onus for dam construction and maintenance onto federal shoulders.
If some of the bill’s language is incorporated into a Grand Bargain between Congress and the Obama administration, the need for WRDA would diminish greatly — if not disappear. That would make for a very short WRDA voyage.