Marine Transportation System

Next WRDA a Policy Bill?

In Infrastructure, Water Resources on November 3, 2009 at 3:29 pm

WRDAlite2

WRDA (say “wurr-da”) sometimes is an elusive, even mythical, thing.  When it appears out of the Capitol Hill mist–like Brigadoon–it’s not with the reliable–albeit once-in-a-hundred years–clockwork of that fabled village.   It is usually defined as a biennial water resources authorization bill but it rarely takes such predictable, finished form as a president might come to expect on his desk every two years…assuming he wants it there.

Part of WRDA lore (and lure) is that it is tailor made for end-of-congress action on the eve of congressional elections.  Before returning home Members would wrap up the bill and their press releases touting what WRDA holds for their districts.  For, above all, a Water Resources Development Act is a projects bill.  Indeed part of the legend–not without  good reason–is that for WRDA to get through Congress it must be laden with projects.  No projects, no critical mass.  No critical mass, not enough aye votes.

WRDA 2007, the most recent version made law, was propelled in part by the huge Everglades project.  It was not without controversy but as an environmental restoration project the Everglades project gave the bill essential critical mass and acceptability among many in the environmental community which often is critical of project bills.

Legislators submit their wish lists.  Even many Members who disdain the practice of earmarking.  Port channels.  Beach replenishment.  Flood control.  Environmental projects…these ever more so.  They include wastewater treatment, water supply and the like.

The foundation of any WRDA is projects that move “through the pipeline,” much as the Everglades restoration project did.  They are subjected to Federal feasibility and environmental studies and then Secretarial and White House review.  An interminable process to some.  Projects exit the pipeline, usually, as recommendations for formal authorization,  WRDA being the next step in a civil works project’s journey through government.

When it comes to critical mass, it looks as if WRDA 2010 could end up WRDA Lite.  Fewer projects and lower cost.  So far only a couple of projects have emerged from the pipeline.  Some folks suggest we may have more of a WRDA policy bill than a projects bill.  That’s possible.

As one example, ports have wanted the law changed to secure the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.   Harbor Maintenance Tax revenues go into the general treasury and only around 60 percent of the proceeds actually are spent on channel maintenance.   There’s meat for a WRDA.

We will have to see whether there will be sufficient oomph of any sort to power this next WRDA.  We may get a clue later this month.  The House Water Resources & Environment Subcommittee will hold its first WRDA hearing  on November 18th. Pbea

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