WJ Editorial

On Infrastructure, Congress Is Acting Like Congress

The past two weeks saw three very positive developments for waterways development coming in quick succession from Congress and the Corps of Engineers.

On June 6, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2018 that passed the House of Representatives. The House WRDA bill rejected both another user fee and a Public Private Partnership (P3) tolling proposal, both strongly opposed by waterways interests as unfair and inequitable. Both proposals had been included by the president in his budget request.

Mike Toohey, president and chairman of Waterways Council Inc. (WCI), said, “WCI is extremely grateful for the dedication and steadfast commitment that House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee Chairman Bill Shuster and Ranking Member Peter DeFazio demonstrated to proceed with WRDA every two years.”

The 2018 WRDA House bill authorizes eight Chief’s Reports, and proposes several localized navigation project changes, but does not affect the priority navigation projects as identified by the Capital Development Plan.

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The House bill also directs the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the current organizational structure of the civil works function of the Corps, to identify impediments to efficient project delivery, and to provide recommendations to Congress. Following recent Corps efforts to streamline its project delivery system, and President Trump’s directive to reduce unnecessary regulations and obstacles to permits, this study could inform further efforts to make infrastructure delivery more efficient and speedier, if enacted.

The authorization bill next moves to the Senate floor for action. No floor time has yet been scheduled in the Senate for the companion bill named “America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018.”

On June 8, the House passed the FY19 Energy & Water Development (E&WD) Appropriations bill by a vote of 235-179. The bill funds the Corps of Engineers at $7.28 billion, an increase of $451 million from FY18 appropriated funding.

Among this bill’s highlights:

• Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF)-supported projects will receive full-use of estimated annual revenues;

• the construction account received $2.3 billion, or $1.3 billion above the president’s proposed FY19 budget request;

• the operations & maintenance (O&M) account was increased to $3.8 billion, $700 million above the President’s budget request;

• the investigations account was allocated $128 million, $45 million above the president’s request;

• The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) is funded at $1.6 billion, which hits the WRRDA 2014 target; and

• The bill did not include Trump’s proposed 10-year, $1.037 billion user fee to be paid by commercial operators on the inland waterways.

Finally, the Corps’ work plan for spending funds already allocated to it in the FY18 Omnibus Appropriations bill was released June 11.

In the construction account, $399 million, which represents full-use of revenues into the IWTF, will go toward:

• Olmsted Locks and Dam: $175 million;

• Kentucky Lock: $39.5 million;

• Lower Mon Locks and Dams 2, 3, 4: $98 million

• Chickamauga Lock: $76.5 million; and

• LaGrange Lock and Dam: (new start, major rehabi): $10 million.

The investigations account includes $1 million for an economic update study of the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP) to expand seven locks on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway and to provide ecosystem programming and monitoring funding. This has been a long-standing item on the waterways industry’s wish list. The Corps will undertake NESP’s economic re-evaluation before Pre-Construction Engineering and Design (PED) can begin.

The investigations account also includes money for PED and/or feasibility studies for the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock replacement; the Calcasieu Lock; the Upper Ohio Navigation Program; the Brazos Island Harbor Brownsville Channel project; the (separate) Brazos River Flood Gates and Colorado River Lock; the Corpus Christi Ship Channel; the Matagorda Ship Channel; the Galveston Harbor Extension; the Houston Ship Channel; and the Sabine Neches Waterway.

“The FY18 Omnibus appropriations bill and Corps’ FY18 Work Plan represent another year of record funding for the Corps’ critical civil works mission. When there was once just one navigation project funded in past fiscal year budgets (Olmsted), today there are four projects proceeding and one new start,” said Toohey.

President Trump’s infrastructure plans remain stalled. But happily, Congress has stepped into the policy breach, reclaiming a good part of the constitutional budgeting and spending authority it had surrendered in recent years and showing that it is serious about infrastructure.