WASHINGTON, D.C. — Judging from the bipartisan backslapping following the introduction of first Water Resources Development Act in six years, you could be forgiven for thinking it will be smooth sailing for the key port and inland waterway authorization bill.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed the bill Wednesday, suggesting WRDA could receive a vote on the chamber floor as early as next month. The collaboration on the two-year bill between Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democratic E&PW chair, and Sen. David Vitter, the Republican ranking member, also bodes well for continuation of a bipartisan Senate dynamic that delivered a surface transportation bill last year and will have to do it again next year.
The Tuesday release of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ annual report card on the state of U.S. infrastructure, giving the nation's ports a “C” grade and its inland waterways a "D-minus," reinforced the need for WRDA. Although the private sector is on track to spend more than $46 billion on port improvements from now until 2016, ports face a $28 billion funding shortfall by 2020, according to the ASCE. The group says underfunding of locks and channel maintenance and expansion results in an average of 52 daily disruptions to barge traffic.
“We have some wind at our back because we have such a broad coalition of support,” Boxer, of California, told fellow E&PW members.
But there are clouds on the horizon. Unlike the Senate, the House is hesitant to accept the Obama administration’s project authorization list. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., isn't a fan of relying on the Army Corps of Engineers’ authorization report.
There has been talk of hiring a third-party to determine which port and inland waterway projects should go forward. WRDA doesn’t provide funding for the projects, but it does set the stage for the annual appropriations process. Boxer expects WRDA to authorize projects requiring the same level of funding as the previous bill did, which gave the go-ahead for $23 billion worth of projects.
The House has yet to introduce a WRDA bill, which was last passed in 2007, but Shuster said it’s his top priority. A House T&I roundtable on ports and trade, scheduled for Thursday, suggests the gears are moving and a bill will come out of the committee soon. Shuster admitted late last month that he has his work cut out for him in getting fellow members up to speed on the importance of WRDA, considering “half the members of the House today weren’t around in 2007.”
Other than how projects will be authorized through the final WRDA bill, the other major question is whether the proposed Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund reform will work. The Senate bill includes language forbidding appropriators from siphoning dollars from the fund to fill other budget holes, but it’s unclear whether points of order would be used regularly to block would-be trust fund siphoners.
The American Association of Port Authorities wants deeper HMTF reform to better guarantee that ports get back all the harbor maintenance taxes, a 0.125 percent tax on the value of imported cargo, they pay into the trust fund. The group wants HMT taxes to go directly to the Army Corps, so they couldn’t be diverted from appropriations in annual fiscal budgets, said Susan Monteverde, vice president of government relations. Congress would also have to request a financial score to estimate how much it would cost to give ports all HMT funding over the next decade. U.S. ports currently get about $800 million in HMT funding annually for jetty maintenance and dredging, with about $700 million diverted to plug budget holes.
Despite its rhetoric calling for more port spending, the Obama administration appears cool to the full use of HMT. “Spending should not be based on the level of receipts from the current tax,” Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, wrote Boxer in a March 14 letter.
The WRDA bill also has language that would allow ports that don’t need maintenance dredging to use HMT dollars for dredging of adjacent berths and handling contaminated sentiment. But it’s not yet clear whether naturally deep ports, such as those on the West Coast, would immediately get the dollars for alternative projects or would get what was left after money was allocated for jetty maintenance and main channel dredging, said Jim Walker, AAPA’s director of navigation policy and navigation.
“It’s not fair for some ports to get money from imports we handle so they can dredge, become more competitive and undercut you,” said Christopher Lytle, executive director of the Port of Long Beach. He said the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have dredging and berthing needs, but can’t use the HMT funding since its tied only to federal channel work. Providing more equitable use of HMT could bolster support of long-term reform that isn’t at the mercy of parliamentary maneuvers to fend off appropriators.
Another major win for ports is that the bill would increase the 50 percent local cost-share for channel improvements from 45 feet to 50 feet, as larger vessels require deeper drafts. The Senate bill also aims to streamline corps project authorization by requiring the agency to complete feasibility studies in less than three years, for no more than $3 million and have approval from all three departments of corps command. Through the bill, two pilot programs would be launched to test whether an increased local role in corps projects could speed up project completion.
“We know we have to change” (how we plan, budget and deliver projects), Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick told attendees of the American Association of Port Authorities spring conference, in Washington, this week.