WASHINGTON — A House committee on Wednesday decried how long it takes for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete feasibility reports for port and inland waterway projects, but took the rare step of admitting Congress was partly at fault for the onerous process.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee’s push to streamline feasibility studies through a Water Resources Development Act mirrors efforts taken by the Senate in its recently passed version of the bill. The corps used to be able to finish feasibility studies in three to five years, but now it generally takes 10 to 15 years, said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who chairs the committee.
“It is no wonder it takes so much time since the corps by law has to review and detail many alternatives,” he said. “Just because a study is costly, complex and long doesn’t make it a better project.”
Shuster said the agency’s attempts to speed up feasibility studies are hindered by “hurdles” imposed by other agencies, including the Department of Interior. Congress’s inability to pass WRDA every two years has prevented port, inland waterway, environmental mitigation and flood control projects from moving forward, he said. Shuster emphasized the need for Congress to get back on schedule, especially since the last WRDA was passed in 2007 and only two of the bills have been passed in the last 14 years.
Unsteady congressional funding also slows down projects, Major General Michael Walsh, the deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations, told the committee. Work on the long-delayed Olmsted lock and dam project, for example, will soon cease because the corps “will be out of authority (there) by the end of the year,” he said.
“We will be taking all the workers off the site and putting a security guard there,” Walsh said.
He said the corps is working to speed up feasibility studies through its 3-3-3 plan, an initiative aimed at finishing studies in three years for no more than $3 million by having district, division and headquarter personnel work concurrently on the research. The corps also plans to fully implement the plan, which began in January 2011, in fiscal 2014. Walsh said the agency is also looking at ways to alternately finance projects via private help and streamline its project deauthorization process, but details are still being worked out.
Of the 25 Army Corps projects awaiting authorization through WRDA, only three are port projects. The Port of Jacksonville is seeking the go-ahead for a $36.9 million navigation fix, known as Mile Point, while the Port of Savannah needs reauthorization of its $652 million harbor deepening project after environmental protection measures raised the price tag. The Port of Freeport needs authorization of a $237 million plan to deepen the Freeport Harbor Channel so it can handle larger liquefied natural gas tankers.
The corps expects there will be a need for more navigational projects to be authorized later in the year, but it’s unclear whether the passage of the Senate version of WRDA would prohibit those latecomers from being included. It also remains to be seen how and whether the House will regain control of the authorization process, considering its ban on earmarks. House members argue that accepting the Army Corps’ list of project needing to be authorized cedes too much control to the Obama administration.
“The earmark is an issue and we have had many discussion about that in this committee, and we really need to get that,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. “We have a responsibility and we have forgone (our) responsibility by limiting our ability to rate projects.”