Washington Waves
Washington Waves

House Committee Advances WRDA 2020

Washington, D.C.—A key House committee has advanced a bipartisan Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020 authorizing projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and providing policy direction to that agency’s civil works mission.

Sent to the House floor by a voice vote, H.R. 7575 maintains a popular tradition of moving a WRDA bill every two years since 2014.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the measure also would accomplish one of his top priorities by unlocking the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and investing that revenue in the nation’s ports and harbors.

“This legislation will allow for the approximately $10 billion in already collected HMT funds to be used to ensure the maintenance needs of ports and harbors across the country are met,” DeFazio said.

“In addition, the legislation sets aside funding specifically to meet the needs of emerging harbors, including improvements to jetties and breakwaters.” He also pointed to provisions on 30-plus feasibility studies and the construction of roughly the same number of pending projects with final Chief’s Reports within the agency’s civil works mission areas.

Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) said the bill would address its top priority by adjusting the cost-share for construction and major rehabilitation of inland waterways projects from 50 percent from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and 50 percent from the general fund to 65 percent from the general fund and 35 percent from the trust fund.

WCI President and CEO Tracy Zea said the “bill is a step in the right direction for inland waterways infrastructure.”

DeFazio was joined in introducing the bill by Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the chairwoman and ranking member of the panel’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

Graves spoke of the importance of the inland water transportation networks, adding the bill authorizes a bold new plan on combating repeated flood events.

Corps, MarAd Funding

The House Appropriations Committee advanced spending bills to fund the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maritime Administration for fiscal year 2021.

Approved by partisan votes, the bills now go to the full House for floor action. They should face an easy ride through the House, given the Democratic majority, but the kind of Republican opposition that can just as easily block them is expected in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Major sticking points for House Republicans include billions in emergency spending Democrats say can help the economy recover from the ongoing pandemic and what critics see as controversial policy riders that violate the spirit of a 2019 budget agreement.

Republicans repeatedly expressed confidence a bipartisan agreement can be reached once the bills arrive in the Senate, noting the vast majority of the projects requested by members of both parties are in the bill.

Under the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Act, the Corps would receive $7.63 billion, with investigations remaining at $151 million; construction, $2.6 billion; and operations and maintenance, $3.84 billion, an increase of $48 million over the current year.

Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund projects would receive $1.68 billion, a $50 million boost over the current year, which would meet the target set for fiscal year 2021 and represent 92 percent of the estimated revenues.

Seven new study starts and seven new construction projects would be provided by the bill.

An additional $17 billion in emergency funding to accelerate work on Corps projects also would be included with $110 million for feasibility studies in investigations, $10 billion for construction to speed up projects to provide protection from floods and ensure navigable channels to move goods and restore the environment; and $5 billion to address unmet operation and maintenance needs and repair damaged Corps projects.

Under the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies bill, the Maritime Administration would receive $1.2 billion, an increase of $197.3 million above the current year, with $314 million for the Maritime Security Program, a $14 million boost with another $500,000 for each vessel in the program; $300 million for the Port Infrastructure Development Program, an increase of $75 million; and $389 million for schoolship construction, a boost of $89 million.

An additional $26 billion for Department of Transportation programs would be provided with $3 billion for BUILD; $125 million for Maritime Administration operations and training; $345.5 million for state maritime academy operations; $100 million for assistance to small shipyards; and $1 billion for the Port Infrastructure Development Program.

COVID-19 Relief

Key House Democrats introduced a bill to authorize relief to the maritime industry during the current COVID-19 pandemic as well as future emergencies.

Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said H.R.7515 would provide the maritime sector the same protections and relief given to other industries during the pandemic and close a gap in current federal emergency assistance that has left links in the maritime supply chain isolated and unable to access such assistance programs.

“The men and women who work within the Maritime Transportation System are part of our nation’s essential workforce that has been key to keeping critical goods moving during the global pandemic, and for that, we owe them a debt of gratitude,” DeFazio said. “But our thanks are not enough.”

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, chairman of the House panel’s Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, is the lead co-sponsor of the Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Act.

Maloney said ensuring the maritime industry has the resources needed during emergencies is an important step to protect the workers, national security assets and goods that pass through U.S. ports daily.

American Association of Port Authorities President and CEO Christopher Connor welcomed the bill’s introduction, stating that COVID-19 relief is critical for the port and maritime industry.

“While we know that this is an authorization bill, it’s AAPA’s hope that the bill be adopted with a strong intent for its funding and that Congress will move expeditiously,” he said.

Connor was one of several industry leaders who testified recently before the House committee on the need for such emergency relief.

Infrastructure Overhaul

President Donald Trump announced completion of a “top-to-bottom overhaul” of the nation’s infrastructure approval process that he said has cost the nation trillions of dollars in project delays.

“So, we’re cutting the federal permitting timeline for a major project from up to 20 years or more, hard to believe, down to two years or less,” Trump said during a visit to the UPS Hapeville Airport Hub in Atlanta, Ga., where he also thanked drivers and other employees for continuing to deliver for the country during the pandemic.

During his speech on changes to the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, he cited improvements at the Port of Savannah and the delays connected to that project.

Trump’s announcement sparked strong partisan reaction with Republicans welcoming the move they said will help revive the nation’s economy and Democrats warning his attack on such a landmark law would undermine environmental protections.