Bipartisan, bicameral agreement is reached on WRDA conference report
May 12, 2014
Late last week, a foursome of Congressional lawmakers heavily involved in domestic transportation policy hailed a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on the Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA) conference report.
“We are proud to deliver what the American public wants and needs,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Senator David Vitter (R-LA), EPW Committee Ranking Member, and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), Transportation Committee Ranking Member in a statement. “This conference report maintains ports and navigation routes for commerce and the movement of goods, provides flood control that protects lives and property, and restores vital ecosystems to preserve our natural heritage. This important measure will strengthen our Nation’s infrastructure and keep America competitive in the global marketplace.”
Senate EPW Committee officials said that this week the necessary paperwork will be finalized and allow the bill to go before the House and Senate for final passage, with more details to follow when the House T&I Committee’s WRRDA (Water Reform Resource Development Act) conference report is filed.
As previously reported in LM, House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee officials said that through this type of water resources legislation, Congress authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to carry out its missions to develop, maintain, and support the Nation’s vital port and waterways infrastructure needs, and support effective and targeted flood protection and environmental restoration needs.
And while Congress has passed this legislation every two years to provide clear direction to the Administration and the Corps, a bill has not been signed into law since 2007.
House T&I Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in September 2013 that U.S. ports and waterways are highly essential, especially when considering that 99 percent of the goods the United States trades, sell, and import around the world go through U.S. ports, representing $1.4 trillion worth of goods every year.
But he pointed out that comes with a caveat, considering that the United States’ critical infrastructure is aging and the process for updating it is slow, costly, and filled with red tape.
Various components of the bill, H.R. 3080, are directly tied to the nation’s ports, with language focused on:
-authorizing needed investment in America’s ports;
-supporting underserved, emerging ports;
-reforming and preserving the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which pays for the construction and rehabilitation of the country’s inland waterways system; and
-authorizing priority water resources infrastructure improvements recommended by the Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers to improve navigation and commerce and address flood risk management, hurricane and storm damage risk reduction, and environmental restoration needs
WRRDA (the House version is known as the Water Resources Reform Actt) also addresses the Harbor Maintenance Trust (HMT) Fund, which is comprised of revenues collected annually from importers and domestic shippers for deep-draft navigation maintenance dredging and the operation and maintenance of large and small ports.
Shuster said that this bill does not provide any changes to how the HMT is applied. But he said the T&I Committee have set up a process where historically about 50 percent of the Harbor Maintenance Tax Trust Fund was spent on harbor maintenance, although this year that figure is now at 65 percent.
“What we have done [in the bill] is try to reform the process so that every year in inches up by 2 percent per year so that by 2020, 80 percent of the fund is spent on harbor maintenance,” said Shuster. “It is not something that gets fixed overnight…but it is a step in the right direction so that those dollars are spent in the way they were intended to be.”
And in May 2013, the U.S. Senate approved S. 601, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2013 by an 83-14 margin.
This legislation provides critical flood protection for communities across the country, maintains the flow of commerce, and will create up to 500,000 new jobs, according to the Senate’s Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee.
The Senate version contains various provisions that stand to have a direct impact on shippers, including:
-project authorization for 18 projects that address all major mission areas of the Corps of Engineers, including flood risk management, navigation, hurricane and storm damage risk reduction, and environmental restoration, with an annual benefit topping $690.3 million;
-project delivery reforms that establish a new program to promote levee safety and improve inland waterways project delivery, among other efforts; and
-address the surplus of the Harbor Maintenance Trust (HMT) Fund by ensuring all revenues will be spent for port maintenance and not impact other important Corps of Engineers projects
In a letter sent to House and Senate WRDA Conferees by U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President for Government Affairs Bruce Josten last year, the Chamber made it clear to the conferees that both bills contain several common elements in the major policy categories that the Chamber supports and reflect meaningful recommendation proposed by a congressionally created federal advisory committee, think tanks, and transportation stakeholders.
The letter also noted how the Chamber supports the Senate provision that would provide for the ultimate full usage of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for its intended purposes. And it also made it clear it is disappointed by the omission of the recommendation made by the Inland Waterways Users Board to provide predictable, reliable, and sustainable revenues to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund from both the House and Senate bills. It explained that 57 percent of the 238 locks on the inland waterways system are over 50 years old and well beyond their design life, with 34 locks over 80 years old, according to the National Waterways Foundation, adding it is critical to address the gap between needs and resources on the inland waterways.
“The 113th Congress has the opportunity— for the first time in six years — to complete WRDA reauthorization,” Josten wrote. “Congress can kick-start strategic investment in our ports and inland waterways, increase American competitiveness and, in the process, create hundreds of thousands of high-paying U.S. jobs. The Chamber strongly urges the conferees to recognize the similarities between the House and Senate positions, find common ground where there are differences, and do so quickly. Failure to achieve a conference report would be a missed opportunity. Rather than bearing fruit, the shared policy reforms of the House and Senate packages would die on the vine, and outdated and inefficient laws would continue. The economic growth potential of infrastructure investment would be squandered and job losses would likely continue in the coming months and years.”
American Association of Port Authorities Public Affairs Director Aaron Ellis told LM that the HMT component of this bill—the Senate version released in 2013 has one as well—has been a sticking point for a long time for port stakeholders.
“Much of the money in the HMT Fund is used for other purposes aside from its intended purposes, which are to maintain America’s navigation channels, and both bills have provisions calling to substantially increase appropriations for that purpose or full utilization,” he said.
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