International Dredging Review

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On February 12, the Trump administration released details for the fiscal year 2019 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works program. The budget provides $4.785 billion in discretionary funding for the Civil Works program, including $1.930 billion for commercial navigation, $1.491 billion for flood and storm damage reduction, and $224.464 million for aquatic ecosystem restoration.

The budget proposes revisions to the appropriations language for the Construction, Operations and Maintenance, and Mississippi River and Tributaries accounts and the Harbor Maintenance and Inland Waterways Trust Funds to enable greater transparency in how these funds are spent, the administration said in its budget overview.

The budget provides a total of $1.019 billion for the Construction program ($871.733 million from the Construction account, $32.6 million from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, $108.932 million from the Mississippi River and Tributaries account, and $5.25 million from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund).

Projects are chosen based on Construction Performance Guidelines. To qualify for consideration, projects must be authorized for construction; have an approved Chief’s report; and a completed review under Executive Order 12322, which requires that agencies seeking Congressional approval, appropriations or legislative actions for reports, studies or plans, submit the plan to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) first for review. The construction performance guidelines by which a project would be judged include project purpose as related to the Corps three main mission areas (flood and storm damage reduction, commercial navigation and aquatic ecosystem restoration); safety issues; economic return; environmental/mitigation requirements.

The budget provides a total of $3.144 billion for the Operation and Maintenance program, consisting of $2.077 billion from the Operation and Maintenance account, $932.532 million from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and $135.113 million from the Mississippi River and Tributaries account.

The budget provides a total of $82.6 million for the Investigations program, consisting of $82 million from the Investigations account and $0.6 million from the Mississippi River and Tributaries account.

The budget includes $965.132 million for work financed from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to support cargo transport at current levels at the 50 largest U.S. coastal ports, which handle around 90 percent of the waterborne cargo that is shipped to or from the United States.

The honorable R.D. James, assistant secretary of Army for Civil Works was in attendance at the press conference for the budget proposal, on his first day on the job. He was confirmed a week prior.

Ryan Fisher, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, stood in to speak for the Corps on the details of the budget.

“Tough choices have to be made,” Fisher said. For the $4.8 billion in investments, the administration’s priorities focus on projects that will yield high economic and environmental returns, or address significant risks to public safety.

Fisher said the budget focuses on the “highest performing work” within those three main Corps missions: navigation, flood and coastal storm damage reduction, and aquatic ecosystem restoration.

The budget and its projects, Fisher said, also rely on strong relationships between the Corps and local communities. “And that foundation will help us move forward in several key areas that I would like to emphasize now,” Fisher said. Those key areas being working with local communities; being part of the national and international conversation on addressing water resource challenges; improving efforts on resilience and sustainability; and maintaining the vast water resources infrastructure that the Corps owns and manages. This means both finding innovative rehabilitation practices or finding ways to hand off projects to others.

The budget also proposes changes to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF).

“The budget proposes revisions to the appropriations language for the construction, operations and maintenance, and Mississippi River and tributaries accounts, and the Harbor Maintenance and Inland Waterways trust funds, to enable greater transparency on how these funds are budgeted and spent,” Fisher said.

The budget proposes slightly more than $965 million from HMTF – the highest amount ever budgeted – but proposes to reduce the Harbor Maintenance tax rate “to better align estimated annual receipts with recent appropriations levels,” Fisher said.

Funding for Projects and Studies

“We will continue to be a key partner in the national dialog concerning many current and future water resource challenges facing this nation,” Lt. General Todd Semonite, Corps commanding general, said.

The budget funds 26 construction projects, including 12 flood risk management projects, seven aquatic ecosystem restoration projects, and seven commercial navigation projects. The seven navigation projects are Boston Harbor, Savannah Harbor Expansion, Corpus Christi Ship Channel, Poplar Island, Savannah Harbor disposal areas, Olmsted Locks and Dam and Columbia River.

The budget funds 24 investigations for 10 commercial navigation projects, nine flood risk management and five aquatic restoration studies. Of these, six investigations are funded to completion, including three commercial navigation studies.

When asked about the Savannah Harbor deepening project, which is reaching its halfway point and needed $100 million this year, and received $49 million, Fisher said the Corps had no concerns about the project’s viability. “I think it comes down to tough choices, right? You look across the spectrum of the budget, doing performance-based criteria and what is affordable and appropriate amount of investment at this time, which is what I believe this reflects for Savannah Harbor,” Fisher said.

Major General Donald Jackson, Corps deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations, also answered a question regarding funding for a newly implemented beneficial use pilot program. Proposals for the new program were due March 12.

“We do not have any funds in this budget to implement that. What we’re doing, looking to do, is get those proposals back and let that feedback inform future budgeting efforts,” Jackson said.

FY18 Budget and Infrastructure Plan

Some in attendance at the press conference took the opportunity to ask the Corps about the work that was rolled out in the Congressional budget that just passed on February 8.

“There was a substantial amount of work rolled out on Friday,” Gen. Semonite said. “We have an organization that is not necessarily constrained by how many people we’re allowed to have, unlike some other Army organizations. So districts will continue to be able to augment. We’ll hire up where we need to, to be able to handle that capacity.”

Gen. Jackson couldn’t comment on plan specifics from the most recent legislation yet, but he said, “It’s premature to talk project specifics because we’ll go through a process to do that, where we will align the guidance that we’ve been given through the Congressional language with the resources that have been provided by Congress to make investment recommendations through the administration,” Jackson said. He said work will in part address damage from recent hurricanes and new construction. Congress authorized $17.4 billion in that bill for Civil Works, all associated with flood risk management.

In response to questions about Trump’s infrastructure plan, which was released earlier that morning, Fisher said the Corps looks forward to working with Congress and the administration to “modernize the way the Corps does business as far as the infrastructure initiative is concerned, looking at other ways to fund projects.”

“I think everybody in this room is aware of the backlog of authorized projects that exists, and I think we’ve got a unique opportunity with this administration to address this at that time and look for innovative ways to finance these projects in addition to our traditional Civil Works funding approach,” Fisher said.

Focusing on the Process

“You know, budgets are going to come and go, projects are going to come and go. But I want to make sure I take this opportunity to let all you know that we are continuing to focus on the process as well. Our absolute focus is to deliver the program,” Gen. Semonite said.

He added, “We want to continue to work with OMB because this is not just about concrete and steel and dredging rivers, this is about how do we make our very, very scarce federal dollars go as far as they can, and to be able to make sure we really are taking care of both the environment and to be able to take care of the economy.”