By Bobby Frederick, Vice President of Legislative Affairs and Public Policy
Congressional efforts to enact a biennial Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) continued this week as the House Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment conducted a hearing to discuss proposals for a 2020 reauthorization of the law.
Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, R.D. James – who in that capacity heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) – and the chief of engineers and commanding general for the Corps, Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, testified and responded to questions from lawmakers during the hearing.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., reiterated that one of his top priorities for WRDA 2020 is to “unlock” the harbor maintenance trust fund so it can be spent on its intended purpose of port and harbor dredging. NGFA members mobilized in support of the chairman’s legislation (H.R. 2440, the Full Utilization of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Act), which was approved by the House last year by a vote of 296-109. If this policy advances, the Senate either will act on the measure or Congress will consider including it in WRDA 2020.
In addition, the NGFA worked with Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, to pose a question concerning funding for the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP). Last month, Congress passed a substantial funding bill for the Corps that also included a statement directing that the agency allocate at least $10.3 million for multi-purpose projects in the preconstruction engineering and design phase (PED), a prerequisite before actual construction of locks and dams can get underway. Finkenauer, a champion of NESP, specifically asked if James would work with her to ensure that NESP gets PED funding in the Corps’ Work Plan, to which he responded: “Absolutely. It’s critical to our nation.”
Finally, Rep. Connor Lamb, D-Pa., asked about the feasibility of changing the cost share for funding a lock and dam project on the Upper Ohio River from the current 50 percent federal, 50 percent inland waterways trust fund (IWTF). Lamb noted that the Olmsted locks and dam project on the Ohio River had its cost share altered to 85 percent federal and 15 percent IWTF to get the project completed. While James would not commit to urging such a policy, the NGFA will be joining with Waterways Council Inc. to pursue a legislative change in Congress to change the funding formula to expedite construction of long-overdue lock-and-dam reconstruction projects on the Illinois and Upper Mississippi Rivers.
Notably during his testimony, James urged Congress to establish a separate inland waterways user fee in addition to the diesel fuel tax already paid by commercial barge operators. For decades, Congress has consistently pushed back on this perennial budget request from both Democratic and Republican administrations. The NGFA will continue to work with Congress to both prevent additional user fees and ensure that federal appropriations for lock, dam and port projects remain robust.
The Corps’ Semonite pointed out that policy changes enacted by Congress in previous WRDA legislation have enabled the agency to significantly streamline the amount of time and resources that can be spent to study potential projects. He also noted that 17 Chief’s Reports – representing the Corps’ final recommendation to authorize targeted construction activities – have been signed since the last WRDA law was enacted in 2018. Semonite informed Congress he intends to sign 35 more Chief’s Reports by the end of 2020. Once Congress approves a Chief’s Report, the given waterway project is eligible to receive federal funding.