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Editorial - Our Infrastructure and the New Administration

Our Infrastructure and the New Administration

 

We’ve heard a lot of talk about infrastructure since the Trump administration rolled into Washington. It has long been one of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans can often find some common ground. Both have been working together on the last two water resource bills in 2014 and 2016, which revamped the process for authorization and appropriation. Still, Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have scuffled over project prioritization, and who gets to set those priorities and how. And it’s always been a battle over funding for every project without enough for water resource needs.

 

Yet the new administration is talking a lot about rebuilding infrastructure, as a key issue for the country. Some criticized President Trump for the dark tone of his inauguration speech, but the picture for much of our country’s infrastructure is scary. By 2030, large post-Panamax ships are expected to make up the majority of the world’s container ship capacity, yet fewer than 10 of the country’s 360 ports are now capable of receiving ships of that size. While the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) last rated our ports a C+, inland waterways got a D.

 

President Trump said, “America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” It is not all entirely grim, but it’s no secret that we have critical needs in our country’s infrastructure. The President also said, “We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways.” While he left out waterways, perhaps we can assume they were implied.

 

Project Prioritization

Some of Trump’s “America first” vision sounds good for infrastructure, but I can’t help but be skeptical. No one supports letting our infrastructure fall into disrepair and decay. And yet it has happened in places. President Trump may think he’s there to “drain the swamp,” but he still has to deal with the same shortfall budget and how to prioritize one critical project over another.

 

On January 24, one of the President’s first executive orders was also about infrastructure projects – expediting environmental reviews and approvals for high priority projects. Citing routine and excessive delays by agency processes and procedures, which add to increased project costs, “It is the policy of the executive branch to streamline and expedite, in a manner consistent with law, environmental reviews and approvals for all infrastructure projects, especially projects that are a high priority for the Nation, such as improving the U.S. electric grid and telecommunications systems and repairing and upgrading critical port facilities, airports, pipelines, bridges, and highways,” the executive order said. Good, he didn’t forget waterways entirely this time!

 

The order also said the identification of high priority infrastructure projects would be done by the Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), who would decide whether or not a project was high priority within 30 days of a request by states or department or agency executives, or on his own initiative. “This determination shall be made after consideration of the project's importance to the general welfare, value to the Nation, environmental benefits, and such other factors as the Chairman deems relevant,” the order said. It goes on to discuss how high priority project deadlines would be established and adhered to.

 

Again, it sounds good on paper. But if the wrestling over the last administration between the Corps and Congress over prioritizing water resource projects, including revamping the process for identifying and authorizing projects from the ground up, has taught us anything, it’s that it is not a simple process or an easy answer. It’s also not something for one person to decide.

 

Also, in the notion of priority to anyone is inherent bias. What’s a priority to me might not be a priority to you. Or similarly, one infrastructure project might be a priority to one area and not another. Likewise, how does one quantify and qualify a “project’s importance to the general welfare,” and “value to the Nation.” Every piece of waterways legislature that I’ve read outlines those goals in much the same words, and has always strived for that. But easier said than done. Projects also have detailed cost-benefit ratios to analyze economic benefits vs. price, but is that the only type of value? The “environmental benefits” of a project might be easier to define, but again, not so easy to rank one by one.

 

In addition, the executive order doesn’t address the biggest issue for water resource infrastructure – funding. Prioritized and expedited projects still need appropriated funding.

 

Congressional Oversight for Infrastructure

The House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) committee and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) are always talking about infrastructure and advocating for its investment.

 

Last month, the House T&I committee met on February 1 for a hearing on “Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America” to discuss the importance of our infrastructure, our future needs and the federal role in infrastructure. In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said, “One thing November’s election taught us was that the American people are ready for their elected officials to rethink the way we do things here in Washington and challenge the status quo.”

 

On February 8, the Senate EPW committee had a hearing on “Modernizing our Nation’s Infrastructure.” Much of the hearing focused on surface infrastructure, the struggles faced by rural areas, compared to their urban counterparts, drink water and wastewater issues, and the role of counties in project planning.

 

The hearing also included statements from an important proponent of coastal restoration, Anthony P. Pratt, administrator of shoreline and waterway management for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control, and president of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association. Pratt spoke about the importance of coastal infrastructure and the key to investing early. As example he cited Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, where the beach and dunes that separated freshwater wetlands from the tidal saltwater of Delaware Bay were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. The Department of the Interior (DOI), which owns and manages the site, received $38 million of Sandy recovery funding to restore the beach and dune system through a beach nourishment project. He said, based on beach nourishment contract prices, had DOI addressed the breaches, as the erosion problem first presented itself, an investment in the range of $2 to $3 million would have avoided the large wetland damage and $38 million to repair it. Beach project construction, Pratt argued, is also good for job creation.

 

Pratt said ASBPA is recommending at least $5 billion over the next 10 years to rebuild and restore beach, dunes, wetlands and other coastal flood risk reduction infrastructure.

 

Funding and HMTF

On February 28, in the President’s first address to Congress, infrastructure was again a topic of discussion and funding also became part of the conversation. The President said, “To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital — creating millions of new jobs.”

 

The House T&I and Senate EPW Committees have long advocated for increased funding for water resources. The question remains, where will it come from? One place that perhaps some of this $1 trillion dollars, at least for water resources, could come from is the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). This fund made of user fees from coastal ports and harbors, levied on the value of imported goods, has historically far exceeded the funds appropriated for harbor maintenance. The Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT), collected for ports and harbors, should be used entirely to invest back in their infrastructure. The Water Resources Reform & Development Act of 2014 set forth a schedule for increasing spending amounts from HMT every year until 2025, when the full amount should go to water resources.

 

To that end, on March 9, the House T&I committee sent a letter to President Trump, signed by Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D—OR) and Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Chairman Garett Graves (R—LA). To meet the President’s call for $1 trillion in infrastructure, the letter urges the President in his fiscal year 2018 budget to fully utilize funds in HMTF “to maximize the capability of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.” The letter states that the nation’s 59 busiest ports have one-half the channel width available about one-half of the time, and the condition of mid-sized and small commercial ports are far worse. The expanded Panama Canal has only increased dredging needs around our country’s ports.

 

The letter said that the Corps estimates that the total average annual cost of simply maintaining the nation’s navigation channels to full depths and widths is $2.3 billion during the first five years. After five years, the average annual cost decreases to an estimated $1.9 billion. It encourages the President to increase federal investment in infrastructure and “dedicate all Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues to their intended purposes.” All of it, now.

 

Typically, I can cover the administration’s budget projection for the next year in time for this issue, but we’re still waiting on the numbers for FY2018. I contacted Corps headquarters, and the press office said they expect a preliminary budget by mid-March and more details will come after that.

 

Despite Trump’s many controversies, he may be good for water resources. But the jury’s still out in that one too. I don’t think anyone before Trump, or anyone after, would advocate for letting our country’s infrastructure deteriorate. It is one of the founding doctrines of our country, that the federal government establish and maintain infrastructure to support commerce between states. Yet we’re failing, but not for lack of concern. Instead, we’re facing budget issues that have hampered the proper growth and development of our infrastructure. It’s any easy target to use as speech propaganda, but very different to facilitate at the legislative and project level. 

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