Washington Waves

Infrastructure Spending Eyed As Economic Stimulus

Washington, D.C.—Congress overwhelmingly approved an $8.3 billion coronavirus emergency funding bill as talk by some turned to using infrastructure spending to stimulate the nation’s economy and members of the waterways industry looked for signs of the outbreak’s immediate impact.

Passed by a vote of 415 to 2 by the House, H.R. 6074 moved to the Senate, where it was approved by a 96-1 vote.

It now goes to President Donald Trump to be signed into law.“Americans urgently need a coordinated, fully-funded, whole-of-government response to keep us safe from the widening coronavirus epidemic,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) praised the “clean deal” for its lack of partisan language that he said would have slowed vaccine development, procurement, and availability.

Provisions in the bill ranged from more than $3 billion to fund development of treatments and a coronavirus vaccine to protections against price-gouging of those medicines, $2.2 billion in public health funding for prevention and other activities, $500 million to extend telemedicine to seniors and low-interest loans to small businesses impacted by the epidemic.

Earlier in the week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin opened the door to an economic stimulus package that would include infrastructure, often the example both sides of the aisle point to when promoting common ground in the current highly partisan environment.

“If there is need to stimulate the economy as a result of the coronavirus, I am sure that infrastructure is a priority for the president,” Mnuchin told the House Ways and Means Committee.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) shared similar comments with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao after describing the Trump administration’s budget as inadequate when it comes to surface transportation.

“In addition, with the coronavirus situation causing economic havoc with the Federal Reserve moving aggressively to cut rates, I think we ought to be looking at fiscal stimulation  as a way to keep the economy moving also,” said Reed, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies, who added that there’s “no better form of fiscal stimulation” than infrastructure spending.

The American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) issued a statement describing the impacts of the coronavirus as significant to ports, shipping and logistics but added the human impact remains a top concern.

“The overall economic impact of this type of crisis can easily run into the tens of billions of dollars,” AAPA stated.

“Due to the coronavirus outbreak, cargo volumes at many U.S. ports during the first quarter of 2020 may be down by 20 percent or more compared to 2019.”

Later, Aaron Ellis, AAPA’s public affairs director, said news reports are indicating that shipping conditions in China have nearly returned to pre-outbreak level.

Ellis said AAPA held a member-wide conference with the White House, and he said members believe federal agencies have done an “excellent job” in communicating what is being done to respond to the outbreak.

WRDA Members’ Day

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment took another step toward keeping its tradition of enacting a biennial water resources development bill by holding a so-called Members’ Day to allow rank-and-file lawmakers to talk about their priorities.

In his opening remarks, full Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) once again said one of his “biggest priorities for WRDA 2020” is to unlock the federal investment in the nation’s ports and harbors by including his House-passed bill for full utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund if the Senate fails to act on it.

If those funds are not used for ports and harbors, DeFazio said, they once again will be siphoned off for other purposes.

He previously announced plans to have the next WRDA bill before his committee in the spring.

Members of both parties have voiced strong support for passing another WRDA bill during the current Congress.

Port Infrastructure Grants

The Department Transportation (DOT) announced a Notice of Funding Opportunity to apply for $225 million in grants through the Port Infrastructure Development Program.

Under the appropriations act signed into law, $200 million was reserved for grants to coastal seaports and Great Lakes ports.

DOT stated the minimum size is $1 million with a federal cost share not to exceed 80 percent.

Applications must be submitted by May 18.

For additional information, contact Bob Bouchard at 202-366-5076.

DOT is scheduled to host a series of webinars to provide assistance on the application process.

Details and registration information on the webinars are to be made available at www.transportation.gov/portgrants.

New CWA Rule

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler told a key House panel his agency plans to complete a rule by this summer to bar states from using their veto power under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) to kill projects because of climate change concerns or other issues not related to water qualify.

“States are supposed to only use the 401 veto for clean water reasons (and) in a timely manner,” Wheeler told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.

“We are putting a timeline where the governor would have to veto a project within a year or less, depending on the project, and it has to be because of water quality issues, not because of climate change or unrelated water issues.”

Republicans have been pushing for such a rule because they believe states have “weaponized” CWA’s Section 401 to block much-needed energy projects.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been leading that charge, citing an effort against a $680 million Millennium Bulk Terminal Project in Washington state that he says would allow cleaner coal from western states to be exported around the world.

Critics of EPA’s proposed rule view it as an attack on states’ authority to use an effective tool to protect their water from pollution.

Launch Barge Register

The Maritime Administration (MarAd), as it performs its annual update of registered U.S.-flag launch barges, is requesting information on changes or additions from owners and operators of coastwise qualified U.S.-flag vessels.

Information sought includes owners and operators’ interest in participating in the transportation, launching or installation of offshore platform jackets, their company’s contact information and the specifications of any currently owned or operated coastwise qualified launch barges or plans to construct same.

With a March 30 deadline, MarAd also is seeking that same information on non-coastwise qualified U.S.-flag launch barges.

A current register of U.S.-flag launch barges appears in the February 28 Federal Register.

For additional information, contact Bianca Carr at 202- 366-9309.