WRRDA bill advances to final vote
House and Senate negotiators said Thursday they have reached agreement on a joint authorization bill that will support commerce and create jobs by improving navigable waterways at ports and along the inland river system.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act gives the go-ahead for more than $8 billion in port and waterway projects, which must be separately funded through the appropriations process. It also instructs spending for flood control and environmental restoration work by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Exact details about what is included in the bill are not available yet. The transportation-related committees in both bodies said the final draft of the bill will be ready next week and go to the floor of the House and Senate for a vote.
The Senate easily passed a bill last spring and the House version was approved by a vote of 417-3, but a large number of political and institutional disagreements along party and institutional lines made it difficult for a conference committee to formulate a united bill for a final vote. One of the major sticking points was whether Congress or the executive branch should have final say on which harbor-deepening projects get funded. Many House Republicans objected to giving up control of such decisions to the Army Corps based on positive feasibility studies and local sponsorship for initial costs.
Other differences, according to maritime industry officials, dealt with whether to federalize the entire dam portion of the Olmstead Lock and Dam project that consumes a huge share of a trust fund with inland waterway user fees, how to proceed on a major project near the Gulf, an infrastructure bank for water projects, and member requests for contingent project authorization at a time when earmarks are not allowed.
The final bill is expected to streamline the process for reviewing projects, initiate studies for some new deepening projects, and allocate more dispersal of funds from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund towards maintenance dredging.
The bill is also expected to include authorization for deepening the St. Johns River from 40 feet to 47 feet to allow larger ships to reach Jacksonville port in Florida. The Army Corps determined in April that the $684-million project was environmentally and operationally feasible, and economically justifiable.
Port Everglades, in South Florida, does not have a final Chief's report from the Army Corps yet. Officials there are hoping that a House amendment made it through that would allow ports and local authorities that aren't listed in the bill for deepening to advance money themselves for pre-engineering or other work once a Chief's report is completed and subsequently apply for a credit on the local share of the project or reimbursement for those costs.
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