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Editorial - WRDA 2016 Takes the Stage for Bipartisan Support

On April 28, S. 2848, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016, introduced by Senator Jim Inhofe (R- OK), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), ranking member of the EPW Committee, was approved by the committee, a first step in realizing the bill for the 114th Congress this year.

On May 28, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved H.R. 5303, its version of WRDA 2016. Once both bills pass both the House and Senate, another conference committee, from both the House and Senate, will form the joint bill that would go before the full Congress.

The legislation was no surprise, as it has been in discussion and formation for nearly two years since the passage of the last water resources bill (WRRDA 2014). That bill made sweeping changes to water resources legislation and practices, hence, the extra “r” for reform. The smaller bill this year reestablishes the schedule for passing major water resource legislation every two years, pushing steady support for waterway infrastructure, and tweaking the progress started in 2014.
For a detailed look at the EPW Commit-tee WRDA 2016 bill, see page 28. The House version of the bill came out just at press time, so we’ll detail that version in the next issue. 

In the last editorial, I detailed some of the objectives that the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment wanted to see in the bill, as discussed at the February 24 hearing on the progress of WRRDA 2014 with leaders of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Also, earlier this year on February 10, the EPW Committee invited a group of those that work on the waterways, port directors, en-gineers, and some from the petroleum, steel and construction industries, to a Hearing on the Importance on Enacting a New Water Re-sources Development Act. The Senate hearing touched on many of the same topics as the Corps hearing with the House subcommittee – the backlog of maintenance, more work needed on public-private partnerships, water-way trust fund revenues targets and project prioritization. 

Though the Senate EPW Committee does not always work “this friendly,” as Chairman Inhofe jokingly noted before adjourning the meeting, the bipartisan support “gets things done.” “While other people talk about it, we do it, with the help of people on the out-side, like you.” And they did it two and a half months later with the introduction of S. 2848, Inhofe said. 

The “people on the outside,” at the hearing, the builders, operators, and users of the waterways, were present in support of the work toward WRDA 2016, and overall, the hearing had a positive tone. 

Chairman Inhofe opened the Senate Commitee hearing by reminding everyone of the significance of passing water resources legisla-ion every two years to maintain the water-ways and ports and the economic benefits and jobs they bring.

“This Committee can’t single handedly direct more funds to our water resources, but we can create policies that foster more cooperation between those that maintain the infra-structure and those that depend on the infra-structure. What we are saying here is we are not an appropriation committee; we are an authorization committee,” Inhofe said. He said many new policies were created in WRRDA 2014, but there was still more work to be done, namely “fostering partner-ships between federal, state, local and private interests,” he said.

In his opening statement, Bob Portiss, port director of the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma, head of navigation for the 445-mile long-McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS), noted that before Congress invested in the new waterway, authorized by the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1946, the cities along the waterway had to commit to develop a port to ensure access to barge transporta-tion. Portiss said Tulsa did its part – acquiring 2,500 acres for one of the nation’s largest inland ports – and Congress agreed to build and maintain the waterway.

“This partnership worked well until a few years ago when the backlog of maintenance reached an unprecedented $170 million, $70 million of which is now deemed ‘critical’ by the Corps,” Portiss said. The terms ‘critical’ he reminded the group, the Corps defined as those items that have a greater than 50 percent chance of failing over the next five years. In FIVE years time? That sounds more like intensive care to me, than critical, but the current budget can’t even begin to address all the problems at hand.

Portiss was also in support of a provision enacted by WRRDA 2014, in Section 1024, which authorizes the Corps to accept help (mate-rials and services) from non-federal stakeholders during emergencies. With no implementation guidance in place yet for the provision and WRDA 2016 on the horizon, Portiss said the provision should cover all emergencies, not just natural disasters, and implementation of the provision should be delegated to district commanders to push for more prompt action.

In response to funding challenges, Portiss supported alternative funding mechanisms and the public-private partner-ship (P3) model. “I would strongly recommend that you direct the Corps to implement those provisions to en-able us to work jointly with them to develop alternative forms of financing to overcome the current critical maintenance backlog,” Portiss said. He said the work done with the Corps districts and divisions along the MKARNS should serve as a good P3 model nationwide.

In her opening statement, Norma Jean Mattai, acting president of the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE), highlighted the funding challenge in real numbers – between now and 2020, investment needs in the nation’s marine ports and inland waterways sector will total $30 billion, while planned expenditures are only about $14 billion, leaving a total, federal, investment gap of nearly $16 billion over the upcoming years. The well-known ASCE report card, which ranked the nation’s waterways infrastructure at a D+ in 2013, will be updated for 2017, Mattai said. “WRDA bills provide an important opportunity to help raise the grades,” she said.

ASCE also supports P3s, and Mattei made some suggestions about P3 contracts and provisions and future revenues – 1. Public revenue from the P3 projects should go back exclusively to facility infrastructure where the project is based; 2. Revenue and assessments should be reported annually to the public; 3. P3 contracts should include performance criteria that address long-term viability, life cycle costs, return on public and private investment and more. “Transparency is a key element in all aspects of contract development, project implementation and any subsequent operation,” Mattei said.

She also championed the beneficial use of dredge material, and recommended revising the government’s methodology for the economic analysis of dredging costs to reflect the economic gains of beneficial use.

During the question period, Senator Shelley Capito (R – WV) asked Mattei, in response to the backlog of maintenance projects, if it was possible to prioritize the different types of projects (water resources, wastewater, drinking water, etc.) as one being more at risk than an-other. Mattei warned against prioritizing categories but rather ranking and prioritizing projects across all sec-tors, and making the riskiest projects a priority.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) took some of his time to comment on earmarks. “I think I have the sympathy of the Chairman and the Ranking Member in this, which is that when we disarmed ourselves of being able to do what were then called earmakrs, i.e., have any specific congressional control over anything, we gave up enormous amounts of our legislative power.” 

He said the power struggle or fight is between the House and the Senate, resulting in what he calls a “dis-armament by the legislature to the point virtually of self-mutilation,” essentially gave all the power to the executive branch. Many are still against the earmark ban, and the legislative authority for Congress to introduce project authorizations can have its place, but I hope legislators give the new process a chance to work out the kinks, before reverting to old practices. It may be that down the line, legisla-tors need and want to gain back some of the prioritization authority for projects, and it may require some additional updates to the process. But currently, you can’t assess the new process as is, before it has a chance to see some projects from beginning to end.

In the final Congressional statement of the hearing, Senator Kirsten Gillabrand (D-NY) began by highlighting that “investing in our infrastructure is a bipartisan issue for our Committee,” and WRDA bills are a shining example of bipartisan accomplishment – a good example for all of Congress and many other committees moving forward.

As I said in the beginning of this column, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee did in fact pass the legislation and introduced WRDA 2016, which authorizes 25 Corps projects in 17 states. It took many steps to clarify and amend provisions started in WRRDA 2014, and invest in the nation’s ports and inland waterways. This includes building on the reforms made to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) by clarifying targets for increased funding and extending prioritization for donor and energy transfer ports and emerging harbors. Other sections include provisions to prioritize ecosystem restoration projects, start regional initiatives to address important water resources issues that impact communities across the country, and streamline the project approval process across the board. The bill also does a number of things to strengthen and advance how the Corps and local and state authorities interact under public-private partnerships, which continue to be the only additional funding mechanism to support the waterways and bring its aging infrastructure into the future.

The Senate EPW Committee was very proud of its birpartisan work on this waterways bill and others. Now, the real work begins, as both houses of Congress work toward passing the bill together. Sen. Inhoge and Sen. Boxer were confident that the bill would pass during this session, and we wait for the debate and final amendments to the bill.  

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