Marine Transportation System

A Red Cape Wish List

In Environment, Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on March 17, 2013 at 11:28 pm

The first formal expression of what the Obama Administration is looking for in a water resources bill came to light the other day in a March 14 letter from Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy to Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The letter provides requested “input on the development of a Water Resources Development Act.” It arrives none too soon. The chairman, with ranking Republican David Vitter (R-LA), is about to release their bipartisan recommendations for WRDA 2013.  A Committee mark-up session is scheduled days from now.

Ms. Darcy outlines a sort of policy wish list, one that has familiar themes from current and past Administrations–watershed planning, process improvement, and authorization of projects “most likely to generate a high return to the Nation.”  More notably the letter’s message crosses into territory that knowingly will have the effect of a matadors’ red cape in a dirt-floor arena.

For flood plain communities…the letter suggests that Congress “re-examine the Federal role following a flood in reconstructing public infrastructure including levees and other flood and storm damage reduction features.” It goes on to suggest reconsideration of “law and policies that influence where and how we rebuild.”

For shoreline and other flood prone communities…the Administration view goes further, calling on the legislature to “retroactively revise the stated purpose of all existing [Corps of Engineers] authorities that include flood control, storm or hurricane protection, or shore protection as a project purpose.” Reducing “the risk of flood damage in areas beyond the shore” is one thing; protecting and defending a shoreline alignment “for its own sake” is quite another.  Either way, it’s a timely subject just months after Superstorm Sandy carved its mark on the coastline.

What is driving this call for new water resources policy? Probably not much more than concerns about program cost and environmental consequence, aggravated by a whole lot of meteorological weirdness. Yes, global warming. And while both of those are concerns shared by some folks in Congress the letter’s recommendations run counter to civil works tradition and to the inclination of public officials to say yes to building and repairing solutions to flooding and the disappearance of coastline back home.

The letter doesn’t have a lot new—or reassuring—for the port/navigation community.  The statement on the navigation trust funds may break a few hearts but not new ground. The letter reiterates the Administration’s proposed fix for the broken Inland Waterways Trust Fund including a new fee structure, which the waterway industry has opposed in favor of building on the existing fuel tax regime.

It also expresses an unambiguous view in counter direction to the lobbying by ports and dredgers to increase channel maintenance funding and have full-use made of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. Instead, the Darcy letter flatly states, “spending should not be based on the level of receipts from the current tax.”

That principle could be debated, but it fails to acknowledge the fact that the Corps of Engineers she oversees is on record as saying the annualized national need for port maintenance dredging is in the neighborhood of $1.5 billon, which is a whole lot closer to the HMT annual tax receipts, projected to be $1.659 billion this year, than the roughly $850 million budgeted by the Administration for O&M this year.

It’s hard to understand walking away from the obligation to maintain what you built when the lack of money ain’t an available excuse.  This from the White House that recently announced a “Fix It First” policy for U.S. infrastructure.

Interestingly enough, arriving the same day as ASA Darcy’s letter was an email message with a transcript of a recent meeting at which President Obama talked to mayors, seemingly off-the-cuff, about the need to address port and waterway infrastructure in order to keep the U.S. competitive on the export market. In fact there are faint signs that his next budget (FY 2014) will have a fairly strong channel maintenance budget, but the Darcy letter is a clear indication that we should not look for any structural improvements in policy to guarantee full-use of the HMTF.

The Senate committee will meet soon to take up a WRDA bill. It will attempt to address the HMTF issue, the insufferable slowness of the civil works project planning process, the brutalizing of coastal areas by powerful storms, and a lot of other things in need of attention. But views expressed in the Darcy letter, on behalf of the Administration, may not be represented to any significant degree, in a bill that is a bipartisan product. And it won’t come close to resembling the bill that the Republican dominated House will produce later this year.  Pbea

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