Washington, D.C.—A key Senate committee approved a five-year, $287 billion bill to reauthorize a major transportation infrastructure program that includes a number of provisions that will impact the waterways industry.
Advanced by a 21–0 vote of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, Senate Bill 2302, America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, was described in historic terms by supporters partly for its 27 percent increase in authorized spending over the current levels in the law that expires next year.
Provisions important to the waterways industry include those to expand eligibility in the National Highway Freight Program to include lock and dam modernization and grant states flexibility to use federal freight formula funding on waterways projects.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who sponsored language impacting the McClellan Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System and other waterways, said the bill also would allow states to apply for Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA) grants for those projects.
The American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) described the bill as “good news” for ports and singled out provisions to increase the multimodal caps on the INFRA program from 10 percent to 30 percent, expand eligibility of the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program to include rural barge landing, dock and waterfront infrastructure projects, extend the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act grant program through 2024 with more flexibility on diesel alternatives, and allow states to use Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program funds for inland waterway and marine highway projects.
Supporters expressed optimism a floor vote could come this fall, but other committees must act on sections outside the EPW Committee’s jurisdiction.
Despite the panel’s unanimous vote, a difficult challenge remains on how to fund such a huge bill.
“Certainly those who use the roads need to contribute to the work that is being done,” EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said, making it clear he was talking about electric vehicles that do not generate revenue to the Highway Trust Fund because they do not purchase fuel.
President Donald Trump, whose trillion-dollar infrastructure vision so far has gone nowhere, tweeted his support for the Senate bill.
Trump’s support is considered crucial in coming up with a way to pay for the bill.
The U.S. Senate easily gave final congressional approval to a sweeping two-year budget agreement that would revive a stalled appropriations process, avoid a government shutdown in October and lift the national debt limit.
Approved by a 67-28 vote, H.R. 3877 now goes to the desk of President Donald Trump to be signed into law.
Once the appropriations process gets back on track, members of the waterways industry will be watching how the spending levels that came out of the agreement will be applied to individual programs they have been tracking.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called on his colleagues to support the bill.
“We need to address the debt limit and secure the full faith and credit of the United States,” McConnell said as the floor vote neared.
“We need to continue to secure the funding that our national defense demands. Fortunately, the pending legislation will accomplish precisely that.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also had urged the bill’s passage.
Days earlier, the U.S. House passed the bill in a 284-149 vote.
During that House vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who largely hammered out the agreement with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, kept a large majority of her rank-and-file Democrats with her, losing only 16 votes from her side.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had a much more difficult time with 64 Republicans joining him to support the bill and 132 opposing it.
A major concern for Republican critics of the agreement focused on the significant hike in spending, especially for nondefense programs.
Lawmakers in both chambers are scheduled to be away until after Labor Day.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to address all of the 2014 reforms on speeding up its feasibility studies, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found.
As an example, the GAO said the Corps came up short on establishing a public database on the status of its feasibility studies, which can take years to complete.
“The Corps does not have a plan to address these other provisions,” the GAO stated.
GAO recommended that the civilian head of the Corps—the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works—be directed to develop a plan with resource estimates to address the remaining 2014 provisions, evaluate the impacts of the reforms and clarify its policy to help ensure district officials enter required milestones data into its central data system.
According to GAO, the agency concurred with its recommendations.
Coast Guard Bill
After overwhelmingly rejecting amendments on another Jones Act waiver and turning to NATO allies for building U.S. ships, a Senate committee approved a bill authorizing funding for the U.S. Coast Guard through 2021.
Senate Bill 2297 also includes provisions its supporters say would improve the competitiveness of the nation’s maritime industry, protect U.S. national security interests in the Arctic region and guarantee that Coast Guard members will be paid during government shutdowns, a provision that was taken out of the House version because of budget rules.
Approved by a voice vote of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, the bill now heads to the Senate floor.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) proposed the amendments on adding another process on waiving the Jones Act and easing a current ban to allow the Coast Guard to contract for ships built in NATO countries.
Lee pushed both amendments as a way to save money.
Opponents warned the Jones Act amendment would not only weaken that decades-old law but the Merchant Marine as well, adding the amendment allowing the Coast Guard to contract with a shipyard located in a NATO country for a new vessel would harm the entire shipbuilding industry in the U.S. and cost well-paying American jobs.
Both amendments were rejected by votes of 4 to 22.
Marine Highway Projects
The Maritime Administration announced the designation of nine Marine Highway Projects and a Marine Highway Route that will benefit several states and a U.S. territory.
“The designation of marine highways by Congress will help move cargo and people to help grow the economy and shift freight off of congested highways,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said.
Designated projects and routes can apply for federal funding under the America’s Marine Highway Program (AMHP).
Congress appropriated $7 million for the AMHP in the current fiscal year.
New designations include Bridgeport to Port Jefferson ferry service in New York and Connecticut; barge service connecting New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and other New England ports; a new barge service to help the Port of Fernandina in Florida serve all coastal seaports on the Atlantic, including Charleston, S.C.; container service to help Port of Oswego on the Great Lakes expand its reach into national cargo movement; barge service extension at Port of Morrow; new barge service to expand short sea shipping on the Eastern Shore of Virginia; Seattle-Bainbridge Island ferry service; creation of dedicated centralized Houston Gateway and Gulf container-on-barge facilities; and enhancement of Port of Pago Pago, American Samoa, ferry service.
The AAPA welcomed the inclusion of three port-related projects in the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announcement of roughly $856 million in proposed grants through the INFRA program.
Double-stacking of shipping containers to and from the Port of Baltimore will be enabled by work at Baltimore’s Howard Street railroad (CSX Transportation) tunnel funded by a $125 million grant to the Maryland Department of Transportation.
A dilapidated bulkhead on the Cuyahoga River Ship Channel will be replaced and collapse of Franklin Hill at Irishtown Bend will be prevented by work funded by a $9.02 million grant to the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which secured the grant through coordination with the Port of Cleveland.
PortMiami will use its $8.04 million grant, the second in as many years, for Seaboard Marine Terminal rehabilitation and expansion.
According to DOT’s announcement, 20 projects made the list.
“The INFRA program is a tool that ports must fully utilize for our freight network and supply chain to operate efficiently,” AAPA President and CEO Kurt Nagle said.
“While many maritime projects are complex and need multimodal funding tools to build them, there are plenty of highway corridor and first/last mile projects in need of federal funding.”