Marine Transportation System

WRDA Words

In Infrastructure, Ports, Water Resources on May 7, 2013 at 12:05 am

The Senate is about to take up the first water resources bill since President George W. Bush signed WRDA 2007 into law.  By the count of many stakeholders–ports, river dependent shippers, flood weary communities–it is around four years late.  So if, for argument’s sake, the Senate passes the bill this month of May will WRDA 2013 spring into House action and to the desk of President Obama before Tidal Basin cherry trees feel the autumn cold and drop their leaves?  There’s reason to doubt it will happen that quick. But rather than peer that far into the legislative fog, let’s take a look at what is before the Senate now.

Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA) proudly produced S. 601 with the full support of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. They patterned their WRDA 2013 bill after MAP-21, which emerged from a dysfunctional Congress with bipartisan support. The water resources bill would authorize Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects to move ahead, update and reform parts of the base law dating to WRDA 1986, and attempt to streamline Federal process and delivery (construction) of projects. There is a lot to pick at and find fault with as with most public works bills. Some stakeholders will see more benefit than others. But for an economy that has been going wanting for the stimulus of public works construction the bill’s advancement to the Senate floor is being trumpeted. Five hundred thousand jobs, or so they say.

The bill has run into some buzz-saws. Environmental organizations and “tax-payer” groups have  loudly complained. It might be said that both are traditionally unfriendly to water project bills. The former argues for keeping navigation and other projects to an absolute minimum while favoring “environmental projects,” such as habitat restoration. The latter assumes there will be wasteful spending, which I would argue was certainly more true before the reforms of WRDA 1986 than it is today. The bill will result in “overspending, overcapacity, and substantial and unnecessary damage” to estuaries and harbors, or so they say.

Then there are the complaints made by leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee who predictably don’t like sections having to do with with the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. House and Senate Appropriators don’t like being told they have to fund seaport channel maintenance at the rate of collected Harbor Maintenance Tax revenue. And it’s not just because setting funding levels is their prerogative. It’s the little matter of having to come up with around $700,000,000 in additional funds. That’s a big lift in good fiscal times…and these are not good fiscal times.

Meanwhile Great Lakes senators who want the bill to assure full-use of HMT revenues for port channel maintenance are nervous, on behalf of their generally small-sized port industry, by the wording of the bill. The bill gives “high-use deep draft” ports priority status for HMTF expenditures. They want certainty that all small commercial ports are not “perennially put at the ‘back of the line’.” There are lots of other small ports in the country that would like that assurance spelled out.

Then there are the Washington State senators who have been champions of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) is in a strong position to say something about how much HMTF funds are budgeted, how the monies are being used and, more parochially, how the collection of the HMT in Pacific Northwest ports can be a reason for U.S. imports to enter North America through Canada.

Let’s not forget the Administration in all this. The White House official view cites reasons why the bill “doesn’t currently support all” of the Administration “key policies and principles” but it is carefully worded not to threaten a veto. It echoes the complaints of environmental organizations in the Statement of Administration Policy released today. The bill’s project streamlining provisions, among other things, undermine “the integrity of several foundational environmental laws.”

In her testimony before the committee where she once worked, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy told Boxer and Vitter last February that the Obama Administration supports a channel maintenance  spending level that “reflects consideration for economic and safety return of each potential investment” in maintenance as well as taking into consideration “other potential uses of the available funds,” the meaning of which is troubling for ports whose primary concern is ensure the use of “available funds” for harbor maintenance only. The testimony includes a flat statement in opposition to the idea of fully using collected HMT revenue for channel maintenance. Spending “should not be based not the level of receipts from the current tax.”

The SAP has a few odds things in it, including an incorrect description of the proposed change to the cost-sharing requirement that ports have to pay part of the incremental cost of maintenance of  channels deeper than 45 feet. The bill would shift the sharing of costs to apply to channels deepened beyond 50 feet. It is in the bill as recognition of the increasing standard size of vessels and the fact that cost-sharing was to be required only when greater depths are needed exceptionally large vessels, which in 1986 were super tankers and colliers, not container ships.

Senators Boxer and Vitter have been preparing a “manager’s amendment” to serve as a substitute for the version of S. 601 that emerged from their committee. We await its debut because it will reflect the compromises that have been made to address some of those complaints.

Word is that the HMTF full-use provisions were weakened at the appropriators’ insistence in return for a pledge to increase O&M appropriations somewhat. Word is that changes were made to accommodate some concerns of environmental organizations. We now wait to see the words.      Pbea

 

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