Washington Waves
Washington Waves

DOT Issues $1.5 Billion In BUILD Grants

Washington, D.C.—Port projects were among the 91 to share $1.5 billion in BUILD grants announced by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Chao described the BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grants as a “down payment” on the Trump administration’s commitment to America’s infrastructure.

The American Association of Port Authorities highlighted more than a dozen individual projects such as the $25 million to the South Carolina Department of Transportation that includes expansion of the Inland Port Greer;  $23.17 million to Emmonak, Alaska, for the Lower Yukon River Regional Port and Road Renovation Project; $20.7 million to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., for the Carbide Dock Port Rehabilitation and Truck Route Reconstruction; $20 million to the port of Port Arthur, Texas, for a berth expansion and a multimodal on-dock rail project; $20 million to the Port of Coos Bay, Ore., for the Coos Bay Rail Line Bridge Rehabilitation project; $19.41 million to the Port of Morrow, Ore.; for the Columbia River Barge Terminal Rail Access project; and $15.5 million to the Virginia Port Authority for terminal optimization and grade separation.

According to DOT, demand for BUILD grants far exceeded available funds with 851 eligible applications requesting more than $10.9 billion from all 50 states, as well as U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia, nearly double the applications received in 2017.

DOT said the latest awards re-balance a 10-year, historical underinvestment in rural communities.

“In this round, in which 59 percent of the applications were for rural projects, 62 projects were awarded to rural grant applications,” the agency stated.

New WOTUS Definition

A much-anticipated proposal to revise the controversial definition of the “Waters of the United States” put in place in 2015 by the Obama administration was announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Army.

A second step of a two-step process that grew out of an executive order signed in 2017 by President Donald Trump, the proposal is intended to eliminate the 2015 rule and replace it with what the administration describes as a “clear, understandable and implementable definition.”

“For the first time, we are clearly defining the difference between federally protected waterways and state protected waterways,” said Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, whom Trump has announced will be named to that job officially.

“Our simpler and clearer definition would help landowners understand whether a project on their property will require a federal permit or not, without spending thousands of dollars on engineering and legal professionals.”

Under the proposal, federal rules would still apply to “traditional navigable waters, their tributaries, certain ditches, certain lakes and ponds, impoundments of jurisdictional waters and adjacent wetlands.”

Not covered by federal rules: those ephemeral features that contain water only in response to rainfall, groundwater, roadside and farm ditches, prior converted cropland, storm water control features and waste treatment systems.

Once the proposal is published in the Federal Register, a 60-day period for public comment will begin, and the agencies will hold an informational webcast on January 10 and a listening session in Kansas City, Kan., on January 23.

After the agency missed a timeline laid out to Congress by then-administrator Scott Pruitt, it has taken itself out of the business of predicting an end date for the effort, with one official suggesting completion next year sometime.

Immediate reaction from Congress appeared to break down along party lines with Republicans welcoming the effort and Democrats criticizing it.

“The old WOTUS rule put Washington in control of ponds, puddles and prairie potholes,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who said the new proposal addresses that overreach as well as the confusion associated with the 2015 rule.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the panel’s ranking member, said the proposed changes would open U.S. waterways to pollution and lead to years of unwieldy litigation.

Leadership Meeting

First came a type of political theater rarely seen in the Oval Office, with the U.S. president and top  Democratic leaders of Congress bickering among themselves but in front of cameras as they considered how to fund 25 percent of the federal government still operating under a stopgap spending bill.

Then came statements from President Donald Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that could suggest to some that they weren’t even at the same meeting.

“Well, believe it or not, I think it was a very friendly meeting,” Trump said. “And we made a lot of progress.”

Schumer’s take: “President Trump threw a temper tantrum.”

Pelosi: “The Trump Shutdown is a luxury that the American people cannot afford.”

Meanwhile, the stopgap measure that funds those agencies, including the departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, runs through December 21.

Climate And Infrastructure

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told President Donald Trump any infrastructure package, often singled out as an area ripe for bipartisanship in the new year, must include policies and funding to combat climate change.

“Climate change is real, caused by humans, and its impacts are already being felt in communities across the country,” the New York Democrat stated in a letter to the president.

“If left unchecked, the damage caused by climate change will cause untold human suffering and significant damage to the U.S. economy.”

His letter cited the administration’s recent Fourth National Climate Assessment report that detailed risks linked to climate change.

Schumer included a number of options ranging from providing permanent tax incentives for clean electricity and storage to increased investments in research in energy efficiency and carbon reduction.

Trump has been dismissive of the climate report.

“I don’t believe it,” he told reporters when asked about its conclusion on the negative impact climate change could have on the nation’s economy.

FMC Innovation Teams

The Federal Maritime Commission voted to organize innovation teams of experts to determine commercial viability of ideas that could bring clarity on when and how shippers pay demurrage and detention fees and create a Shipper Advisory Board to offer insights on emerging maritime issues.

That action came in response to Commissioner Rebecca Dye’s final report on an investigation launched earlier this year after receiving a petition filed by the Coalition for Fair Port Practices.

“The work done since March of this year has yielded four main ideas that I am confident will make a difference and are the concepts to pursue to finality,” Dye said in a press statement.

“We do not want to miss a rare opportunity to make things better and toward that goal, we will promptly convene innovation teams to ensure implementation is commercially viable.”

The innovation teams will address how to provide transparent, standardized language for demurrage and detention practices; clear, simplified and accessible demurrage and detention billing practices and dispute resolution process; explicit guidance regarding the types of evidence relevant to resolving demurrage and detention disputes; and consistent notice to cargo interests of container availability.