Washington Waves: January 22, 2018

Washington, D.C.—The chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not hesitate when asked to advise a key Senate committee on any changes it could make to speed up work on water infrastructure projects.

“I think the single biggest issue is probably that benefit cost ratio. How can we somehow get some degree of relief there?” Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“How do we make sure that that money is going to the right place?”

Conceding the pot of money won’t necessarily grow, Semonite suggested the Corps should look at innovative solutions to ensure some of the projects that are viable can better compete for funding.

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Earlier in the panel’s hearing entitled “America’s Water Infrastructure Needs and Challenges,” Semonite had been questioned by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) on how lower property values in more rural areas of the country may make it more difficult to get water infrastructure projects because they have to compete with coastal areas with much higher property values.

Semonite agreed with Ernst the matrix used in making such decisions must be changed.

He and Ryan Fisher, principal deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, appeared at the hearing, the second in as many weeks, as the EPW Committee prepares a Water Resources Development Act of 2018.

Both Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee’s ranking member, spoke of the bipartisan approach it has taken in the past.

Funding, specifically the Corps’ massive construction backlog, helped set the discussion.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) used the backlog issue to urge the administration to direct the funds in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund toward only harbor maintenance projects.

Following the hearing, Barrasso dismissed talk of bringing back earmarks as a way for members of Congress to help prioritize projects.

He also said he would not support an increase in the fuel tax.

Infrastructure Anticipation

 Anticipation continues to grow over the release date of President Donald Trump’s long-awaited trillion-dollar infrastructure package.

Waterways, the newsletter of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, cited clues coming out of the Trump administration in suggesting the formal rollout of that package will be delayed until after the president’s State of the Union address on January 30.

Barrasso had a little fun when reporters pressed him on what he knew of the release date by quoting back to them what he had read in the press.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stayed away from pinning down a specific date even as she assured reporters infrastructure would not be delayed by other concerns.

“And if infrastructure gets rolled out by the end of the month, or the first part of next month, we’ll certainly be working on that as well,” she said.

Steve Cernak, chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities and CEO of Port Everglades, laid out AAPA’s three priorities in an advance copy of his prepared remarks for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s summit entitled “America’s Infrastructure: Time to Modernize.”

Those priorities included $66 billion in federal freight and port-related investments over 10 years, full use of the HMT with those funds going directly to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and identifying a multimodal source to fund the FAST Act’s discretionary and formula program.

 Appropriations Bills

If congressional leaders succeed in keeping the federal government funded and open, those tracking key differences between the various appropriations bills working their way through the Senate and House will have to wait at least a few more weeks to find out how those issues are resolved in a long-term spending measure.

A bill introduced in the House, the lead chamber in the effort to avoid a shutdown, was yet another stopgap measure to maintain government funding through February 16.

The next step was expected to be a long-term measure to provide funding to finish out the remaining months of the current fiscal year.

During her regular press briefing, however, Sanders explained the administration has not changed its position and still wants a bill to go beyond fiscal year 2018.

“We’d still like to see a clean funding bill, a two-year budget deal,” she said, explaining negotiations on other major issues, such as immigration, could follow that deal.

That could raise the stakes on other issues such as transportation grants.

Jones Act Defense

Members of a key House subcommittee took turns using a hearing on the state of the U.S.-flag maritime industry to present a strong defense of the Jones Act and criticize those who want to repeal or weaken it.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, helped set the tone of the hearing and at one point even suggested the efforts against the Jones Act were coming from a “deep state” within the federal government.

With the hearing’s witness table populated by supporters of the law, Hunter’s attempts to seek explanations on why federal officials would work against it appeared at time to leave the witnesses at a loss.

“Any of you, please. Help me out here,” Hunter said.

Suggested explanations ranged from a lack of understanding of the law and how it has been enforced to false narratives pushed by those motivated by profit.

“It’s stupid. It’s absurd,” Hunter concluded, describing the Jones Act as one of the cornerstones that allow the U.S. to maintain its national security apparatus.

AMP Officers

The American Maritime Partnership announced a new slate of officers, topped by newly elected President Matt Woodruff of Kirby Corporation.

“Our vibrant domestic maritime industry is an essential foundation of America’s economic, national, and homeland security,” said Woodruff, a retired U.S. Naval Reserve commander.

He also serves as Kirby’s vice president of Public and Government Affairs, the southern region chairman of The American Waterways Operators and vice chairman of the Inland Waterways User Board.

Also elected to top AMP posts: Michael Roberts, senior vice president and general counsel of Crowley Maritime Corporation, as vice president; James Weakley, president of Lake Carriers’ Association,  as treasurer; and Matthew Paxton, president of Shipbuilders Council of America, as secretary.