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EDITORIAL - July/August 2014

Just a Bill on Capitol Hill—My Editorial Journey from WRDA to WRRDA

When President Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) on June 10, it was the culmination of a story that spanned the existence of this magazine. The story started in the second issue I published in 1981, and ended a year after I retired as editor, and began spending my time writing.

In the November 1981 issue of IDR, H. Ron Brinson, then executive vice president of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) laid out the choices and challenges inherent in the concept of deeper draft ports, fairness in charging user fees and their effect on competition, and the role of the federal government in maintaining the nation’s port system. It had become evident that larger and larger ships were going to require deeper draft channels, and that is what WRDA 1986 was all about – authorizing deeper channels and changing how improvement and maintenance would be paid for. Ports would welcome a change, Brinson said, because the federal government had “done little to improve the Nation’s deep draft navigation system in recent years and not a single new channel project has been authorized in the last five years.”

“The lack of certainty in the federal role has tended to delay and otherwise to scramble port planning cycles at great expense to those entities providing the initiative toward port development,” Brinson said.

In October 1983, Dr. John Herbich, head of the Center for Dredging Studies at Texas A&M, told Western Dredging Association (WEDA) members that, “we are utilizing ship channels built for ships that no longer exist. We’re falling behind other industrialized countries in depth and safety,” he said. At that meeting, William R. Murden, chief of the Corps of Engineers Dredging Division, told members that a channel report sponsored by the Corps of Engineers would soon be complete.

In January 1983, IDR reported that the National Waterways Study had been presented to the Chief of Engineers, and that it predicted that from 1977 to 2003, waterway traffic was expected to increase by 25 to 50 percent. That same report mentioned that the nation was facing the biggest budget deficit in our nation’s history, and that cost recovery and shared cost are the keys to future federal activity in the water resources and navigation arenas.

In March of that same year, we included a report on the State of Louisiana Task Force on Deep Draft Vessel Access to the Lower Mississippi River, established by Governor David C. Treen. This study evaluated a number of alternatives for achieving 50- or 60-foot drafts in that stretch of the river.

In May 1983, we reported that Vice President George Bush would address the Inland Waterways Conference in Louisville on “The Role of Water Transportation to the Future Growth and Development of the U.S. Economy,” an indication of interest by the Administration.

In August 1983, Chuck Hummer, deputy chief of the Corps Dredging Division, told WEDA members that for the first time in three years, the Corps would enter the fiscal year with an appropriation. The $400 million was $40 million under what the Corps thought was a reasonable amount.

“The comfortable budgets of former years are no longer in existence,” he said, and explained that planners were having a hard time coming up with criteria from which to distribute the shortage.

“It will affect the viability of the contractors to have a steady stream of work for the year and to know how much money is in the program,” he said.

In September 1983, waterway user charge legislation was re-introduced in Congress by Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-VT) on behalf of the Reagan Administration. The bill would impose fees to recover 70 percent of operation and maintenance and capital and construction costs of the system.

Also in September 1983, the Corps of Engineers announced a National Dredging Study to assess dredging needs in the U.S. for the near and mid-term future. The National Research Council was commissioned to conduct the study.

By 1984, WRDA bills were written in both houses of Congress, but neither passed that year. In the 99th Congress - 1985 to 1986, WRDA bills by Sen. James Abdnor (S. 366) and Rep. Robert Roe (H.R. 6) were passed, with the requisite cost sharing and cost recovery provisions (user fees.) A committee bill, P.L. 99-662, was passed by both houses on November 17 and President Reagan signed it that day.

We reported in IDR that Assistant Secretary of the Army Robert Dawson had been making the rounds of dredging and other waterways meetings for the past four years, explaining that President Reagan would not sign a WRDA that didn’t contain cost sharing. It was a revolutionary and extremely unpopular concept, along with the institution of user fees, which some were saying would put the shippers out of business.

Bob Dawson was given much of the credit for getting the bill passed. I reported, “He has been preaching cost-sharing to waterways and port groups since 1981. The Administration took a firm stand on this from the beginning – that the federal government would not pick up the whole cost of port deepening. … Bob appeared before groups of port people where ‘cost sharing’ was a sacrilegious concept, and told them they would have to accept it or not get a bill at all.” I went on to say, “It was vaguely frightening to see him. You wondered if anyone would throw things or ride him out on a rail. Maybe he wondered, too. Gradually everyone began to loosen up and listen to the other side, and then they all met in the middle for a real compromise – cost SHARING instead of one or the other party picking up the whole tab.”

In February 1987, the American Association of Port Authorities, which was the major special interest organization that worked for passage of the bill, held a three-day meeting to assess the effects of the bill, which authorized 53 new channel projects. The mechanics of cost sharing procedures was discussed, which required signing a Local Cooperation Agreement (LCA) by which the state and local entities agreed to pay their portion of construction costs. Corps representatives assured the ports that they would give them “all necessary help. Dredging representatives were skeptical, fearing that local participation would result in less efficient planning and management of projects,” I reported.

In 1988, WRDA 1988, PL 10-676, was passed by a wide margin in both houses. The bill authorized more deepening projects, including the Delaware River from Philadelphia to the sea, and also the replacement of the Olmstead Lock and Dam on the lower Ohio River. It also authorized the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to begin their 20/20 development plan before their feasibility study was prepared.

As plans for the newly authorized deeper channels went ahead, and local entities began dealing with the fact of allocating money to pay their share, the Corps civil works budget became an annual focus and headache for the waterways industry.

In Spring 1989, the Corps put a several month moratorium on dredging projects because of a shortfall of $59 million in the Corps budget as a result of “unexpected expenses from repairs, flooding and drought, for which funds were diverted,” a Corps representative told IDR. This happened concurrently with reorganization at Corps headquarters that changed the Dredging Division to the Dredging/Navigation Branch. Dredging contractors feared that this was a downgrading of the dredging mission by the Corps.

In early 1994, Harry Cook, president of the National Waterways Conference, told port officials at a New Orleans seminar that “user taxes are like a modern-day Genie, out of its bottle and in danger of devouring the inland waterways industry.” He said deep draft shipping must pay 117 different user taxes and assessments like the Harbor Maintenance Tax cost the shipping industry more than $500 million a year.

In June of that year, the AAPA continued advocating for the adoption of a National Dredging Policy by the federal government to facilitate approval of dredging projects in a timely and cost-effective manner.

As the years progressed, the channel deepening projects progressed as well, but the Corps budget continued to be inadequate for all its responsibilities, which included maintaining locks and dams, hydroelectric facilities and flood control structures in addition to the navigation channels. Some federal shallow draft channels were abandoned during the George W. Bush administration.

The focus of the waterways industry was now to obtain an adequate amount for the Corps water resources mission. The Harbor Maintenance Tax had been in effect since 1986 and had collected more than $2 billion. But there was no legal provision that all that money be used to for harbor maintenance. In 2009, waterways stakeholders initiated RAMP – Realize America’s Maritime Promise – under Barry Holliday’s leadership, to advocate for a provision requiring that the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) be used for its stated purpose to the extent required by the water infrastructure, before any portion of it was used elsewhere. The provision was to be part of a WRDA bill.

The National Waterways Conference held an annual legislative summit – a workshop to refresh people’s understanding of the budgeting process, before they spread out over Capitol Hill to visit their legislators and urge them to advocate for waterways funding, and to cosponsor the next attempt to pass a WRDA. As a result of this and other similar efforts, the list of supporting organizations for a WRDA containing the HMTF language grew longer, and the repeated assaults on legislators’ offices, as well as the efforts by RAMP and other groups and interested parties, and the outspoken advocacy of President Obama and members of his Administration, bore the fruit of a the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act, passed by a huge margin in both houses and signed by the President on June 10 of this year.

Reporting on the progress of WRRDA 2014, the reforms it institutes, its passage and signing has been exhaustive in IDR, and can be seen in literally every issue in recent years. With the passage of WRRDA, the journey from the industry’s acceptance of cost sharing and cost recovery, the arguments pro and con, and the annual effort to get an adequate Corps Civil Works allocation has reached, not an end, but a major plateau. A new chapter now begins, whereby the tools created by these bills can be used to create and maintain the water infrastructure the nation needs and deserves.

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