Washington Notebook: Signs point to WRDA vote in May
Congressional negotiators are expected to finalize joint legislation to reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act by late April and take it to the House and Senate for a final vote in May, maritime industry officials say.
The House passed its version of the WRDA bill last fall by an overwhelming margin and the Senate approved a bill last spring. Political observers in Washington expected differences between the bills to be quickly sorted out and a WRDA bill to be passed in December, but several issues have slowed down the process.
Most of the sticking points between the House and Senate have been resolved and negotiators are waiting to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to give its final approval to two harbor deepening projects so they can be included in the final bill and be authorized for funding, Michael Toohey, the head of the Waterways Council Inc., said Tuesday at a press conference in Washington. The Chief of Engineer's report states the environmental, operational and financial feasibility of a project and the administration's consensus on whether to proceed.
Toohey said he did not know which ports are in the queue, but one of them is likely the Port of Jacksonville.
The Corps of Engineers, which last month tentatively indicated it favored proceeding on the deepening of the St. John's River, is expected to finish its study by late April. Normally, projects that do not have a final feasibility study from the Chief of Engineers completed by the time a bill passes must wait several years to get included in the next spending plan for civil works projects.
In an interview last week with American Shipper's editorial staff, JaxPort Chief Executive Officer Brian Taylor said that information from Florida's congressional delegation suggests that the House and Senate negotiators do not expect to complete a joint WRDA bill for a final vote until at least the beginning of May, which increases the likelihood the channel deepening will be included in the reauthorization bill.
Both the House and Senate bills would reform the process for reviewing projects, initiate a few studies of new dredging projects, and authorize appropriators to fund billions of dollars in port and waterway projects. The House WRRDA also attempts to maintain deficit neutrality by deauthorizing moribund projects on the books equal in value to newly authorized projects.
One of the main holdups has been House refusal to give the administration full authority to authorize projects. Other sticking points, according to Toohey, are whether to federalize 100 percent of the dam portion of the Olmstead Lock and Dam project that is siphoning off user fees that could be used for other projects; the Morganza project near the Gulf; how to set up a Water Infrastructure Bank; and member requests for contingent project authorizations when Congress is operating under an earmark ban.
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