Washington Waves: May 28, 2018

Washington, D.C.—Much-anticipated water resources bills took significant steps forward in both the Senate and House and are headed to floor action in both chambers of Congress.

On a 21-0 vote, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced the America’s Water Infrastructure Act while the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee moved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2018 by a voice vote.

Timing for floor action remained uncertain, but key lawmakers expressed a bipartisan commitment to a biennial schedule set years ago on legislation deemed critical for investing in the nation’s ports and inland waterways.

Both bills had similar goals such as boosting the role of local stakeholders concerning projects important to their communities, increasing transparency on activities by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and accelerating projects.

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Supporters of the legislative efforts welcomed the committees’ work.

“This is a positive step that addresses the president’s call for nationwide infrastructure improvements,” the American Association of Port Authorities said.

“However, it’s critical that WRDA legislation also includes the details of a historic agreement reached among the nation’s major ports that provides equity and fairness regarding the allocation of the Harbor Maintenance Tax.”

House Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) committed to working on a number of issues before the final floor vote as lawmakers agreed to withdraw their amendments in committee.

When compared to issues raised at roundtables held around the country in recent months, some view the House committee’s version of the bill as less bold than expected.

For example, Shuster at one roundtable had even suggested moving the Corps out of the Department of Defense.

Instead of such a bold step, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), chairman of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, explained the bill settled for a study.

Graves conceded the committee’s version might be viewed as a missed opportunity by some but stressed the need to keep a bipartisan approach.

 Corps Appropriations

A major appropriations bill that funds the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began moving in the Senate with a message that more, not less, should be spent on waterways infrastructure.

“This bill reflects that priority,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water.

For the fifth year in a row, Alexander said, the measure meets the funding targets established for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and makes full use of the estimated annual revenues from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

He also pointed out the bill provides enough funding for the Corps to continue building a new Chickamauga lock in his home state as well as the three higher priority locks of Olmsted, Lower Monongahela and Kentucky.

As advanced by the subcommittee, the bill includes $6.927 billion for the Corps, $100 million above the enacted level for fiscal year 2018.

Sticking to the subcommittee’s custom, amendments were held until full committee action, which was expected soon. 

 Grant Deadlines

U.S. Department of Transportation officials repeatedly stressed the importance of meeting deadlines for federal grants during a webinar hosted by the American Association of Port Authorities.

“Take this very seriously,” said Robert Mariner, deputy director of DOT’s Office of Infrastructure Finance and Innovation.

Mariner even urged potential applicants to submit a dummy application to make sure their information would work on their official application later.

He assured webinar participants only the last application received would be considered.

Frances Bourne, policy lead for the National Rail Policy and Planning at the Federal Railroad Administration, echoed that advice.

Mariner spoke about the funding available under the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program, which formerly was known as TIGER grants.

“Time is ticking,” he said, citing the July 19 deadline for submitting BUILD applications.

Bourne and Stephen O’Connor, Freight Policy Division chief at FRA’s Office of Policy and Planning, spoke about the new Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program.

June 21 is the deadline for submitting applications for the current CRISI round.

According to AAPA, $3 billion in federal infrastructure funding will be available in the coming months, which includes $1.5 billion in the BUILD program, $65 million in the current CRISI round and $592.5 million expected to be available in the future under that program and $900 million under the Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA) program.

DOT is expected to announce the next INFRA grants as early as June.

Regulatory Requirements

Public comment is being sought on how regulatory requirements affecting the U.S. maritime industry can be modified or even repealed to increase efficiency, reduce or eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens or simplify regulatory compliance while meeting statutory missions.

Issued by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is located within the Office of Management and Budget, the request includes a July 16 deadline for comments.

It follows executive orders issued by President Donald Trump just days after taking office to reduce and reform federal regulation.

“Although some agencies that regulate the maritime sector have previously sought regulatory reform ideas, this RFI (Request for Information) seeks broader input on regulations across all agencies regulating the maritime sector,” the agency stated in the Federal Register.

”ORIA is particularly interested in learning more about experiences with regulations involving cargo or passenger vessels, but welcome any comment.”

For additional information, contact Shannon Joyce at 202-395-5897.

NAVSAC Nominations

The U.S. Coast Guard is seeking applications for membership on the Navigation Safety Advisory Council.

Applications should be submitted by July 17.

The council provides recommendations to the Department of Homeland Security on matters related to maritime collisions, ramming and groundings, inland and international rules of the road and diving safety.

For additional information, contact George Detweiler at 202-372-1566.

CG Academy Commencement

Vice President Mike Pence delivered the keynote address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s 2018 commencement ceremony in New London, Conn., and spoke of the “historic investment” that provides more than $12 billion to strengthen the service’s vital assets and help it achieve its mission.

In addition to new offshore patrol cutters, Pence singled out the largest pay raise for Coast Guardsmen in nearly a decade.

He also praised the Coast Guard’s response to last year’s catastrophic hurricanes.