WASHINGTON — House Republicans want a larger role in determining which port and inland waterway projects go forward, but it’s not clear how they will regain their authority with an earmark ban in place.
Like the Senate, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee aims to speed up the completion of feasibility studies and construction projects through a Water Resources Development Act. The legislation, last passed in 2007, is key to authorizing maritime freight projects, along with flood control work.
But unlike the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which passed its version of WRDA last month, House Republicans are loathe to rubber-stamp the Obama administration’s suggestions about which projects should proceed.
“Congress cannot continue to abdicate its constitutional responsibility in determining what projects should go forward and should reassert itself in the face of an administration that creates one-sized-fits-all policy with little or no transparency,” Rep. Bob Gibbs, chairman of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Development, said on Tuesday.
How the Republican-dominated House can prioritize projects without using the Army Corps of Engineers' authorization report is unclear. Prioritizing projects by how much tonnage each project affects would be a misstep because the weight of cargo doesn’t equal value. There is some hope the House would ease its earmark ban regarding authorization of infrastructure projects, but no representative has placed their head so brazenly in the sights of fiscal hawks.
Whatever path the House takes to authorizing projects, the end goal is an overhaul of how Army Corps projects are picked, funded and completed. After years of project delays and decade-long feasibility studies, the maritime and inland waterways industries appear to be itching for a dramatic shakeup. The Obama administration’s project priorities have rarely been “an open, deliberate process” with heavy congressional scrutiny, Amy Larson, president and CEO of the National Waterways Conference, told the subcommittee.
“Permanently adopting in WRDA such a system would result in centralizing all water resources decision-making, excluding the input of both stakeholders and their elected officials from the process of establishing federal priorities,” she said. “Such a system would undermine the very foundation and integrity of the nation’s civil works program.”
The current method of authorizing projects and funding them “is completely broken,” said Peter Stephaich, chairman of Campbell Transportation, a barge operator and shipyard owner. On behalf of the Waterways Council, Stephaich urged the House to push for a $7.6 billion 20-year program targeting the most needed projects. The focus would be on finishing projects already under way and making sure there was enough money to wrap up work, he said.
The inland waterways industry also wants the federal government to pay for projects that cost more than $100 million out of the general fund. That would allow the trust fund to pay for more maintenance projects instead of allowing long-delayed projects such as the Olmsted Lock and Dam project to drain the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The Ohio River lock and dam replacement project originally was scheduled for completion in 2000 at a cost of $775 million. Now, the rosiest projections put the project completion at 2020 and at a cost four times higher than originally budgeted.
The barge industry wants to help pay for the infrastructure improvements by hiking its diesel fuel user fees by 30 to 45 percent, or from 20 cents a gallon to 26 to 29 cents. The Obama administration proposes to increase funding in fiscal 2014 by imposing a per-vessel user fee, but the fee details haven’t been released.
The barge industry opposes any approach that would charge operators by how many locks they traverse because some carriers would be affected more than others. The Senate’s version of WRDA, which could reach the floor this spring, doesn’t address IWTF funding, but there is a placeholder provision in anticipation of legislation calling for a diesel fuel fee hike.
The federal government is unlikely to increase inland waterways project funding, largely because of the tight fiscal climate and because legislators fear "a 10-second sound bite" accusing them of hiking diesel fuel taxes, despite the industry wanting to tax itself more, said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition. The best way to handle inland waterways projects, then, is to focus on maintaining the existing locks and dams, instead of taking on new projects unlikely to be completed any time soon, he said.
The House also shares the Senate’s aim in reforming the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund so ports get all, not just half, of the money they collect on import taxes back for dredging and jetty maintenance. The Obama's fiscal 2014 budget balks from using all the money collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax, a 0.125 percent levy on the value of imported cargo.
Under the administration's budget, only $834 million of the taxes expected to be collected in fiscal 2014 would go back to the ports, with the remaining nearly $1 billion being used to plug general budget holes. The budget proposal illustrates a “disconnect” between Obama’s call for greater infrastructure funding and what the president actually is willing to spend, said Gibbs, R-Ohio. A good point, but House Republicans face a disconnect of their own unless they find a way to bridge their desire to authorize projects and their unwillingness to allow earmarks.