R.D. James: Bullish On Reducing Process And ‘Moving Dirt’
R.D. James was confirmed by the Senate on January 30 and sworn in as the 12th assistant secretary of the Army for civil works on February 5.
In his new position, James establishes policy direction and provides supervision of the Department of the Army functions relating to all aspects of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program. These responsibilities include programs for conservation and development of the nation’s water and wetland resources, flood control, navigation and shore protection.
Prior to his appointment, James was a farmer and manager of cotton gins and grain elevators for the A.C. Riley Company in New Madrid, Mo. While employed with the Kentucky Department of Water Resources engineering office, he attended the University of Kentucky and graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1971.
President Ronald Reagan appointed James to the Mississippi River Commission on December 1, 1981. He was reappointed to the MRC by subsequent presidents and served on the commission until he was confirmed to his present post, serving a total of 37 years.
James received the Sikeston Area Chamber of Commerce 2007 Agri-Business Award and was the New Madrid County Outstanding Conservation Farmer of 1987. He served on the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association, and as a board member of the Cotton Producers of Missouri.
Waterways Journal: First of all, congratulations on your appointment.
James: Thank you, I’m happy to have the opportunity. I’m here because we need to reclaim our infrastructure to remain competitive as a nation.
WJ: Since taking on this new role, with responsibilities beyond water infrastructure, has your view of what the public needs to know about the Corps’ responsibilities changed?
James: I don’t think it’s been a secret that for too long, the Corps has been letting the process get in the way of results. But I am confident that that’s changing. I was privileged to be present April 9 when a dozen federal agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Energy and Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps, among others, signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will reduce unneeded regulations and speed up permitting. [The MOU implemented Trump’s executive order of August 15, 2017.] This was President Trump’s way of saying, “I want my agencies to work together better.”
WJ: There’s been a lot of discussion about President Trump’s infrastructure plans, not all of whose details have been released. Is there any news about what’s happening on that score?
James: I think his infrastructure guidelines are already having a positive effect right now. The agencies are working better together. The beneficiaries will be the stakeholders.
WJ: Now that the Olmsted Lock and Dam is due to be completed this summer, what are the next most important lock and dam priorities? Chickamauga?
James: I think maybe the Lower Monongahela River Project, the Kentucky Lock and Dam and the Chickamauga Lock and Dam are all top priorities. They all work together as a unit.
WJ: Have any members of Congress from those states been interested in treating them as a unit for funding purposes?
James: I’ll just put it this way; I know the interest is there. I was at a WRDA hearing [in the last week of May], and those projects were discussed.
WJ: How many times have you testified before Congress since your appointment?
James: Five times. It’s fun, you should try it!
WJ: Having served 37 years on the Mississippi River Commission, did you find when you arrived that there were things about the river system and its importance that you could educate even some Corps personnel about?
James: I did bring a lot of experience with me, so yes. I didn’t need to teach the Corps leadership anything about the political process, which I am learning about, but there were some experiences about the river system I was able to share with them and my entire team.
WJ: Has the cultural divide between brown-water and blue-water communities lessened over the years?
James: I think so. I see both communities focused on working closely together to move goods on the water.
WJ: Any thoughts on the future of container-on-barge?
James: I was in Panama about three weeks ago looking at the new locks, and I was amazed at the amount of container traffic. The new lock chambers can accommodate the very biggest container ships right now. Our waterway system is not there yet. I hope we will be soon, because I think container-on-barge will be a very big deal in the future.
WJ: The Corps has made changes to the way it moves money around internally, partly as a response to barge industry suggestions. Have you seen progress in that area?
James: Yes, I think so. I visited various Corps facilities while serving on the MRC, and we have eliminated a lot of unnecessary process. The Corps has even moved some decision-making from Washington to the district level. That is huge! I’m very proud of what the Corps has been able to do. And might I add, they have responded very well to me. I have a rather small team of 24 smart, hard-working people.
WJ: Were they all in place, or were you able to recruit some?
James: Some of both, and they are doing a great job!
WJ: So what are some of the most important things the Corps has to do within the next six to 12 months?
James: The Corps got some nice funding from the omnibus bill this year, more funding then normal. We are going to be prepared to move dirt. We’re not going to let process get in the way. My goal as assistant secretary of the Army is to reclaim our civil works infrastructure. We have got to build it and maintain it better and faster than we have been doing.
WJ: And you think that’s possible to start doing right now?
James: That’s what I came here for. I did not come here just to be another political appointee. I’m 70 years old. I had a pretty nice life before this. I’m not here to further a career. I’m here because I thought I had an opportunity to make a real difference in this nation’s infrastructure.