The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday unanimously passed a Water Resources Reform and Development Act that addresses upkeep of America's harbors and inland waterways, but a transportation analyst speaking at a conference across town said the Army Corps of Engineers is a substantial roadblock toward progress and should be completely overhauled.
One week after the bipartisan leadership of the T&I Committee presented a reauthorization bill for the Water Resources Development Act
, the committee quickly made amendments
and voted to send it to the full House for consideration. In addition to authorizing investments for deepening several ports, such as Savannah, it streamlines the project study and delivery process that is managed by the Army Corps and provides more flexibility to local sponsors to advance their own money to speed up feasibility studies or dredging in the absence of federal appropriations. The emphasis on policy reforms - hence the addition of the word "Reform" to the bill's title - reflects growing frustration within industry and among lawmakers over what they view as a broken process in which it can take 15 years or more for channel expansion projects to get approved.
It also would gradually increase the disbursement of money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund from 50 percent to 65 percent for its intended purpose of keeping navigation channels at their authorized depth and width. Each year through 2020, the percentage of the fund mandated to be used would edge up until 80 percent went to dredging, jetty repairs and other rehabilitation work.
At a symposium on the potential impact of the Panama Canal expansion in 2015, Laurie Mahon, managing director of global infrastructure finance at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, said the biggest policy change she'd recommend would be to "revamp the U.S. Army Corps from top to bottom, from its mission, to its organization, to its funding , to its decision-making."
The event was organized by the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based policy research organization.
Speaking in her former capacity as an infrastructure finance consultant, Mahon said she'd restructure the Army Corps as a resource agency that would support local port authorities in moving projects forward that industry needs with the help of private capital.
Barge operators on the Mississippi River, for example, would be willing to kick in money for improvements to aging locks and dams, but their offers are rejected by the Army Corps under the current system.
The current formula for channel improvements requires a local cost-share of 35 percent for channels up to 45 feet and 60 percent for depths greater than 45 feet. The funding has traditionally come from federal, state and local coffers, but there is no reason private investment shouldn't be allowed in the dredging space because there is so much private capital already tied up in most ports, Mahon said.
Most port authorities act as landlords and develop waterfront property to attract ocean carriers, railroads and other maritime users, but much of the equipment and other specific upgrades are paid for by terminal operators and their partners.
Public and private investments very often can't achieve their full return "because certain public agencies have the ability to thwart that," she said.
"If I have billions of dollars invested in something and I’m willing to put in another couple hundred million to get something done it shouldn’t be very difficult to figure out a structure to make that happen. It will be different everywhere. It could be through a contribution, it could be through a surcharge on movements," or other mechanisms, Mahon said, pointing to the Alameda express rail corridor as an example where industry was willing to take on some financial risk to expedite container movements out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Highlights of the WRRDA bill include hard deadlines on the time and cost of studies, requiring the Army Corps and partner agencies to conduct concurrent reviews, and deauthorizing $12 billion worth of inactive projects to focus on new ones.
Among the projects authorized in the bill is the deepening of the Savannah River. The Port of Savannah, the fourth busiest container port in the nation, currently has a 42-foot shipping channel, which would be deepened to 47 feet so it can receive larger vessels. The bill addresses the $150 million cost increase for the $652 million project since it was first authorized in 1997.
"Soybean farmers rely on a reliable network of waterways, locks, dams and ports to move our products from farm to market. Many links in that chain have been, and some are in danger of a catastrophic failure that would bring a stop to commerce. This bill and its companion in the Senate would begin to the process of addressing the backlog and improving our vital waterways infrastructure," the American Soybean Association said in a statement.
The chances of a full House vote on the WRDDA bill are uncertain as a huge showdown looms between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill over raising the debt ceiling and funding Obamacare. Congress has yet to appropriate money for most government operations in fiscal year 2014, so House Republicans plan today to vote on a continuing resolution to fund the government at existing levels through Dec. 15. The bill would lock in this year's sequester cuts and permanently defund Obamacare, which Senate Democrats and President Obama reject. Without a continuing resolution in place by the end of the month the government could shut down again. The debate over spending and borrowing will ramp up further when Congress must decide whether to give the president more borrowing authority to pay the nation's bills.
The Senate passed its version of a WRDA bill in May and the two bills would have to be reconciled.
The water resources bill also supports flood protection and environmental restoration.