Washington, D.C.—The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly gave final congressional approval to comprehensive water resources development legislation to invest in the nation’s inland waterways, ports and other critical infrastructure projects such as dams and levees.
In a 99–1 vote that clearly shows how popular such legislation remains in Congress, Senate Bill 3021, renamed as America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, now heads to President Donald Trump to be signed into law.
“Its importance—for every state in our nation—really cannot be overstated,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.
“America’s ports and inland waterways give our producers access to markets around the world. More than 60 percent of our grain exports, for example, move through our inland waterways. So do other commodities such as fuel, coal and agricultural inputs.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, described the bill as a “consequential, significant piece, the largest piece of infrastructure legislation going to the president.”
In addition to ports, inland waterways, dams and levees, the bill addresses flood control and water programs for local communities.
Previously the House approved the measure by voice vote, but for months, this version and an earlier one that came out of the Senate committee were held up by a dispute over another federal program.
Other key elements promoted by key sponsors ranged from creating a new framework to allow more U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects to be budgeted with local stakeholder input, to directing a study of the future of the Corps and providing public access to real estate assets held by the Corps.
Members of the waterways industry wasted no time in applauding the Senate vote.
Mike Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc., called the bill’s passage a “win for the nation’s towboat operators, freight shippers, ports, and labor and conservation groups that rely on an efficient inland waterways system.”
WCI highlighted provisions authorizing 12 Chief’s Reports, including one on Three Rivers in Arkansas, that will be funded by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and three project modifications that will ensure Chickamauga Lock can continue construction once it has reached its original authorized amount.
WCI also pointed out language was not included on allowing lockage fees or tolls on the inland waterways system, which WCI opposes along with “adverse changes in cost-sharing for the Inland Waterways Transportation System.”
The American Association of Port Authorities singled out provisions authorizing three coastal navigation channel improvement projects to proceed to construction benefitting ports of Seattle, Galveston and San Juan and approving modifications to projects in Savannah, Ga.; Norfolk, Va.; and Sault St. Marie/Soo Locks, Mich.
AAPA President and CEO Kurt Nagle also praised lawmakers for keeping such crucial legislation on a two-year cycle.
Federal agencies still waiting for Congress to approve their fiscal year 2019 funding, including those impacting the waterways industry, should prepare for another budget battle in December if House Speaker Paul Ryan’s prediction proves correct.
Speaking to the National Press Club, the Wisconsin Republican said he is committed to a “full-fledged discussion” on border security that will include President Trump’s desire for expedited funding to build a wall on the nation’s southern border with Mexico.
“We will have a big fight about it,” Ryan said.
Under a stopgap continuing resolution passed as part of a minibus appropriations package signed by Trump, agencies such as the departments of Transportation and Homeland Security began their new fiscal year on October 1 with funding that runs out December 7.
Ryan carefully sidestepped questions on whether his commitment included shutting down the government to get what Trump wants on the wall but did not rule out that option.
“I can’t speak to what the outcomes will be, only that the effort is there,” he said.
Section 401 Obstructionism
A handful of Senate Republicans accused certain states of abusing a key provision of the Clean Water Act to stop a coal export terminal and other fossil energy projects.
They spelled out that claim in a letter asking Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler of the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure the federal government is implementing the Clean Water Act’s Section 401 properly.
“A select number of states have hijacked Section 401 to delay or block the development of natural gas pipelines and a coal export terminal,” the letter stated.
“While the focus of these abuses today is fossil energy, the approach could be used to target any type of project that is disfavored politically.”
In their letter, the senators warn the abuses of the law directly threaten national security by forcing reliance on foreign energy and increased air emissions.
In July, the senators introduced the Water Quality Certification Improvement Act of 2018 to clarify the processes used to evaluate water quality impacts under Section 401.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, used a hearing in August to accuse the state of Washington of abusing its authority under the law to block exports of coal mined in his state and others by refusing to grant a water quality certification to the Millennium bulk terminal project.
Other Republicans on the bill and the letter: Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Steve Daines of Montana.
Automated Truck Queuing
The Maritime Administration (MarAd) is evaluating the use of automation to resolve truck staging, access and parking issues at ports as the federal government advances its commitment to integrating such technology into the multimodal surface transportation system.
That action was among several announced in a new guidance on automation from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“The safe integration of automated vehicle technology into our transportation system will increase productivity, facilitate freight movement and create new types of jobs,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said.
According to the announcement, MarAd will be joined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in evaluating the feasibility of using automated truck queuing at ports.
Entitled “Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0” (AV 3.0), DOT stated, the guidance “builds upon—but does not replace—voluntary guidance provided in ‘Automated Driving Systems 2.0: A Vision for Safety.”