The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a Water Resources Development Act reauthorization bill by a vote of 83 to 14 that sets the stage for Congress to appropriate money for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spend on maintenance of harbors and inland waterways, and for deepening and other water-related projects.
Congress has not passed a WRDA law since 2007, which has put a freeze on new projects that industry groups insist are necessary to maintain efficient commerce and trade.
Key sections of the bill would annually increase the amount of funding that is provided from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and streamline the project delivery process for the Corps. The government collects between $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion per year in excise taxes on imported cargo, coastal shipping of cargo and cruise passengers to pay for dredging to maintain harbors at their approved depths and widths, but only half is spent for its intended purpose. The rest of the money is kept on the books to help mask the federal deficit.
Under the bill, Congress would be required to spend the full amount of Harbor Maintenance Tax revenue by 2020.
The federal government estimates that there there is a $2.2 billion maintenance backlog in major ports around the nation.
The WRDA bill, S. 601
, addresses a range of water issues, including water supply, flood control and wetland restoration.
Provisions would also allow the Corps to launch pilot programs to see whether feasibility studies and projects could be carried out by states and other non-federal entities to help address the backlog of projects.
The bill benefits inland waterway users in several ways, including removing the Olmsted lock and dam from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to avoid the requirement that 50 percent of money for waterway projects come from the trust fund. Instead, the remaining cost of overdue repairs will be paid with money from the general fund, freeing up about $750 million to complete other important navigation projects.
The legislation also prioritizes inland waterway navigation projects and includes measures to reform the project delivery process so infrastructure work can be completed on time and within budget. Projects with the highest risk of failure and greatest benefits to the nation are to receive priority funding, with an emphasis on finishing projects already under way.
Waterways stakeholders, including carriers and farmers, say they want the House to add language when it takes up the bill that would increase the diesel fuel user fee to address the backlog of repairs on the aging lock and dam system.
The Senate vote was hailed by business groups, who credited Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and ranking member David Vitter, R-La., for steering the bill to a successful floor vote.
"As the federal government looks to resolve its budget and deficit challenges, it’s imperative to focus scarce federal resources in those areas that can have the greatest impact,” Adolph Ojard, co-chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities and executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said in a statement. “Investments in seaports are an essential, effective utilization of limited federal resources, paying dividends through both immediate and long-term sustainable job creation, economic growth, tax revenues, and enhanced international competitiveness.”
(Read more about the legislative efforts to address harbor and waterways infrastructure in the May feature story, "Dredging up Dollars
," available in hard copy in the digital edition
of American Shipper
.) - Eric Kulisch