Marine Transportation System

Congress Got It Done

In Congress, Government, Infrastructure, Legislation, Ports, Water Resources on May 23, 2014 at 1:13 pm

While strolling through the park one day
In the merry merry month of May
I was taken by surprise…

Two recent May events are fresh in mind. Maybe not of the surprising sort but perhaps, eventually, capable of the unexpected. On May 6th the Maritime Administration convened its second symposium aimed in the direction of a National Maritime Strategy. And just this week, Congress gave final approval to the first water resources development act legislation enacted in seven years. Both have significance to the maritime sector but, for the time being, we may be able to gauge the significance of just the one.

So, let’s talk WRDA…rather, WRRDA.

You don’t have to have inside-the-beltway know-how to know what “werda” is.  For nearly 50 years, and for more than a century earlier under different names, WRDA has been the path that harbor deepening and inland waterway projects—not to mention flood protection and shore and environmental restoration projects—have taken to Federal approval.

Project ideas graduate from feasibility studies to be authorized for funding by Congress. WRDA is how the Harbor Maintenance Tax and Trust Fund became law in 1986. It is how the near-completed 50-foot deepening in the Port of New York/New Jersey was authorized in 2000. And it is how the Corps of Engineers will be given the go-ahead to deepen and otherwise modify channels in the ports of Boston, Savannah, Jacksonville, Canaveral, Palm Beach, Freeport, and Corpus Christi.

Those ports, and various States and counties, will be relieved when the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, HR 3080, is signed by President Obama.

Passage of WRRDA 2014 was cheered in the halls of Congress. To be sure, some of the voices heard where those of lobbyists, but more prominent were the self-congratulatory speeches and tweets (#WRRDA) let loose by the legislators, especially those with projects at stake. Even Tea Partiers, who two years ago questioned why Congress should even have a role in public works, voted for the conferenced measure and made floor speeches hailing its importance to their town or to the national economic interest.

No small amount of pride was declared in proving to themselves and to the nation that Congress is capable of agreeing on major infrastructure legislation despite the fractious partisanship and anti-spending sentiment that has come to characterize this town. The bill’s reforms and deauthorization provision, which will dump $18 billion in previously authorized projects, provide the calculated and rhetorical coverage they consider essential to allow them to vote for a bill with an estimated, eventual cost in the neighborhood of $12 billion.

Yes, public works can be costly. Of course, not building such infrastructure also can be costly.

If there is an indicator that the conservatives have been hungry to vote in the affirmative on an [insert favorite jobs creation modifier] infrastructure bill and to show that Congress can do something, it is that only four House members opposed final passage despite it being a Heritage Action “key vote.” Only seven senators—also Republicans—opposed the final bill this week.

It helps that some planned projects—including unsexy port channels for goodness sake!—have in recent years been regularly reported across the country as important to US competitiveness in global commerce. The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee leadership used it early on to educate colleagues and the public alike. Who hasn’t heard that the Panama Canal is being expanded to accommodate big ships? They must not have been listening to the President, the Vice President, the news media, etc.  Those are the same ships that the aforementioned ports in Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, New York and New Jersey, among others, hope will come their way.

WRRDA lacks the earmarking that turned some in Congress sour on public works legislation. Instead it prescribes a more detailed process by which the legislature will receive and act on project recommendations. It is a rational process, devised on the House side and intended to be something other than earmarking while reserving the prerogative for Congress to authorize projects i.e., not leave it to the Executive to make the decisions.

The added “R” in the bill is more than for show. Reforms to current law and practice are many. Some are intended to speed the famously bureaucratic civil works process. Others introduce new process and calculus to how Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund monies are budgeted and appropriated. (I may devote some words to that in a future post and so will limit my comment here to wishing “good luck and great wisdom” to the folks at Corps headquarters whose task it will be to interpret and implement the intent of Congress.)

It will have to be seen how well the reforms will enable the Corps of Engineers to meet, and will hold them to achieve, a 3-year study mandate, for example. One test of that will be the extent to which project sponsors are willing to leave the fate of their projects in the hands of Federal planners and analysts. That is because the bill gives more flexibility to project sponsors, such as port authorities, to study, construct and finance their projects. As we have seen in Florida and South Carolina, financial commitments are being made in State capitals in order to get projects constructed and completed well ahead of whenever Federal process and funding get done.

So there is a lot in WRRDA to cheer, not the least of which is the fact that it is done. And should the congressional committees actually live up to the sense of Congress, in Section 1052, to wit, “Congress should consider a water resources development bill not less than once every [two-year] Congress,” there will be even more to cheer in the years ahead.   Pbea

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  1. […] of spending $1.2 billion from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The enacted water resources law (WRRDA 2014) sets ambitious, incrementally larger targets for Congress to meet with funding for channel […]

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