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Posts Tagged ‘Bill Shuster’

A Thirty-Year Project: Fixing Civil Works

In Congress, Corps of Engineers, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Leadership, Ports, President, Water Resources on March 15, 2018 at 11:35 am

The US Army Corps of Engineers took it on the chin last week.  And the bruise can’t be easily hid when delivered by a certain person in the White House.

One of the things I will be starting off the meeting with is to continue to cut regulations.  We have a tremendous way to go. I think we are probably 40 percent of the way there.  Again, statutory requirements make it where you have to give a 90-day notice and then you have to give a 30-day notice, then you have to give a six-month notice. By the time you give all these notices, time goes by.  But still in 12 months, in fact at the end of the 11th month, we cut far more regulations than any administration in the history of our country, whether it’s four years, eight years or in the one case, 16 years. So nobody’s close. But we’re going to cut a lot more. We really have a lot more to go.

Trump Mattis

And we’re working with General Mattis very much and the Army Corps of Engineers, because they have been…uh, not so fast.  And they are slowing up some jobs, so we’re going to get that taken care of.  We’ve been working on that.  The Army Corps, you know EPA gets it done, and we’re all getting it done, the Army Corps has to follow much quicker. And we have to streamline it because they are in charge of areas of the country that really have nothing to do with the Army Corps so much anymore.  General Mattis is working to streamline that procedure and some jobs are being held up because of the Army Corps of Engineers.  They are fantastic people but we’re going to have to speed that up.

The Commander-in-Chief’s words about the Corps, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sitting to his left, nodding affirmatively, were said to assembled reporters and cameras in advance of the March 8th Cabinet meeting. (video)

The folks at Corps Headquarters may be excused for feeling a little unloved. At two House hearings that same week, the Corps’ contribution to slowing projects was voiced by Members of Congress, including the chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) led a hearing not on the civil works program but on the president’s infrastructure proposals. The hearing’s sole witness was Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who dealt with committee questions about everything from the burden of electronic driver logging (ELD) on cattle transport to the Gateway passenger rail tunnel project on the northeast corridor.

During a discussion on the need to improve the permit process, which involves more agencies than just Chao’s DOT, Shuster added his own thinking.

One of the great places to start with permitting is the Corps of Engineers. I met with the Conference of Mayors and AASHTO and I always like to get a show of hands who has had a project, that they worked on…or want to work on, and that the Corps of Engineers has been a huge problem, huge challenge to the project. And every single person in the room raises their hand.  So that’s why subcommittee chairman Garret Graves and I are working now…on a water resources bill and one of the focuses will be a serious look at the Corps of Engineers and a serious look at why the [civil works missions] need to be at [the Defense Department]. Two hundred years ago it made sense. The Army Corps of Engineers was the only ones who could build a dam or roadway, but today there is no need for civil works to remain at DOD. It needs to move to a different agency. I would propose DOT. Secretary Zinke wants it to go to Interior.

In a bit of an understatement by the capable committee leader who failed have the full House consider his major aviation reform objective — moving air traffic control from the FAA — Shuster added that the taking civil works from the Corps would make for a “healthy debate.” (Watch the Shuster statement here on the hearing video.) He does have a more-than-willing partner in any effort to change the Corps. Garret Graves (R-LA) — a former staffer on the committee, then coastal program chief for Louisiana, now heads the Water Resources & Environment Subcommittee. Graves is openly critical of the Corps, will lead the writing of WRDA 2018, and is ready to make significant changes in the civil works program.

In the same building that same morning, a member of the Government Reform & Oversight Committee convened a hearing “Examining the US Army Corps of Engineers.”  Chairman Blake Farenthold (R-TX) of the panel’s Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy, and Environment said “we will discuss ways… project delivery can be stream lined” and led witnesses to address the hearing aim to “highlight ways for improved communication and interaction between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, localities, and the public where it conducts its work and projects.”

The subcommittee members and witnesses were not antagonistic toward the Corps but made clear how bureaucratic slowness extends project timing and costs. James Dalton, the top career civil servant at Corps Headquarters was also at the witness table. He pointed to process improvements made in recent years, but also acknowledged more should be done. Witness Sean Strawbridge, the new executive director at the Port of Corpus Christi, which is in Farenthold’s south Texas district, told a story that other port execs could cite as their own experience.

Starting with the initial congressional approval of a feasibility study, the Corpus Christi deepening project (45′ to 54′ ) has been in the Corps’ study-planning-construction process for 28 years…so far. Strawbridge noted in his statement that the project finally found a place in the Corps construction budget that the White House sent to the Hill last month.

When Garret Graves assumed the chair of his subcommittee, his press release stated he would have an expanded “role in shaping legislation to limit the scope and economic damages of agency regulations, shorten the time it takes for projects to be completed and bring efficiency to how the government works.” His Louisiana experience shaped a determined policymaker.

“Untangling the decades of bureaucracy and the culture of delay within the Corps, EPA and other agencies will take time, but we’re committed to helping lead the transformative change that has to occur to fix what’s broken in government operations. We’re going to work toward making Louisiana’s coast and the state’s need for hurricane and flood protection a case study on how it should be done – instead of another story of government failure.”

“The stupidity of spending billions of dollars after disasters instead of millions on prevention beforehand has to end,” Graves continued. “In the decades it takes the Corps to study projects, homes and businesses flood, vulnerable coastal communities disappear and taxpayers’ dollars are completely wasted. It’s time to partner with the private sector and turn dirt instead of talking and ‘studying.’”

The truth is that even as the Corps of Engineers takes a beating from its Capitol Hill critics, most Members of Congress probably still like having this military-led organization taking their orders for favored public works. But Congress also has had a role in creating and prolonging the problem. Both Congress and White Houses have managed to burden the engineers’ hands, programmatically and budgetarily. The policymakers write laws that the Corps and other agencies are charged with implementing, through guidance and regulation. Members of Congress add to workloads, including by pushing projects into the civil works pipeline, thereby creating a demand for greater dollar resources that the Corps is denied on an annual basis.

Will the Corps of Engineers’s responsibility for civil works be given to another part of government as Shuster suggests? It is very unlikely. But the threat of it could help Garret Graves set the table for some meaningful changes in policy.  Will the president’s pokes result in anything? Possibly. No doubt, his Defense Secretary passed the message down the chain of command to the desk of the new Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, R.D. James.

In the mid-80s, when the Reagan White House and legislators set their sights on instituting new user fees and project cost-sharing as prerequisites for enactment of what became WRDA 1986, port authorities and other navigation project stakeholders said, okay, but also do something about the Corps process that made improvement projects 25-year undertakings. Over 30 years later — about the time it will take to get the Corpus Christi project completed — we are still talking about it.    Pbea

 

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Holy Grail, PortMan!

In Congress, Efficiency, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Legislation, Ports, Water Resources on May 31, 2016 at 11:20 am

If you polled US port directors as to their major objectives in Washington, DC most would put at or near the top of their lists full funding, every year, from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. They would say, if a dollar is collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax in a given year, then a dollar should be spent on maintenance dredging in ports large and small. One of the other things many would want to see is predictable, biennial water resource bills (WRDA) — say “wurda” — to advance navigation projects.

Well, this is your day, Mr. and Ms. Port Director!

The House Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (H.R.5303) is the timely followup to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-121), and a hopeful return to a two-year cycle. It also would make it possible for for ports to realize the long desired full-use of the HMTF and the Corps of Engineers harbor maintenance program to be funded directly — as in do-not-stop-at-the-Appropriations-Committee.

But before you start counting long needed dredging dollars…there’s a catch. (We are talking about the congressional budget process, aren’t we?)  Too good to be true?  No….but there is a caveat to this good news. Let’s give it a name….call it “Delayed Port Director Gratification.”

Here’s the story.

Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, made it a priority to include in the new WRDA bill a provision that would shift the spending of HMTF resources from being in the discretionary category and subject to appropriations to being mandatory. It would mean less constrained budgeting by the Office of Management & Budget and more funding for channel and anchorage maintenance. Overtime, the underwater infrastructure would be more fully maintained to design dimensions. Around five years ago the Corps of Engineers estimated that sustained annual funding of $1,500,000,000 would keep American harbors adequately maintained.

Today even those Federal channels in major ports are not kept at their originally constructed depths and widths. Small harbors often get the short end of the spending stick and the resulting deferred maintenance means a decreasing ability to accommodate commercial and sometimes even recreation vessels. A few years ago the Corps of Engineers reported that almost 30 percent of commercial vessel calls at US ports are constrained due to inadequate channel depths. (Note: Peter DeFazio also included a provision for the small, “emerging” harbors.)

Congress has come to understand that while Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund monies are authorized for spending only for certain port navigation and administrative purposes, the low level of appropriations has resulted in an accumulating, unobligated balance approaching $9,000,000,000. The HMTF has been a convenient pot used by budgeteers to make the Federal deficit look smaller, not to make port channels more efficient. To their credit, House and Senate appropriators have gradually increased O&M funding to the point where the FY 2017 funding bills include $1,300,000,000. Still hundreds of millions of dollars short of meeting the navigation needs in US ports and full use of HMT revenue.

Such mandatory or “direct” spending as the DeFazio provision would make possible could put the trust back in the trust fund…eventually.

When “eventually?”

Eleven years from now….and for good reason.

The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 requires that if Federal revenue is reduced, or spending is increased, it must be offset by a savings elsewhere or by new revenue. This was given the Monopoly game sounding name of PAYGO. A budget “score” indicates a proposal’s projected cost and that analysis has a ten-year horizon. If Congress were inclined to provide an immediate change in the HMTF statute to dedicate the full collection of the Harbor Maintenance Tax each year to be spent fully on navigation dredging projects each year the House and Senate would have to come up with ten years of replacement revenue for the Treasury.

However, if a change in revenue, such as the fencing of HMT receipts so they no longer would be blended with other Federal tax revenue, would become effective eleven years from now, that proposed change in the law would not require an offset under PAYGO. The House WRDA 2016 bill says it sweetly and simply:

Section 108(a). … [T]here shall be available to the Secretary [of the Army, who heads the Corps of Engineers], out of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, without further appropriation, for fiscal year 2027 and each fiscal year thereafter, such sums as may be necessary…”

The need for an offset is what has discouraged committee action to fix the HMTF in the past. Bill sponsors have largely left unspecified how to cover that multi-billion dollar cost…as a detail to be addressed at another time.

Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, introduced the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Reform Act (S.2729) last March. Their bill takes the immediate gratification route, both to address the “full use” issue and to address complaints among some of the large ports that have benefited little by current law.

The senators’ Seattle and Tacoma ports require little harbor maintenance funding and much the same is true in the San Pedro Bay ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. S.2729 would redirect some trust fund resources to certain needs in those ports.

I will go into the Murray-Cantwell bill in greater detail in another post. Suffice it to say that by not waiting patiently for eleven years to roll around the bill likely would require an offset of 10 x $1,600,000,000, to use current year revenue as an example. The odds against finding consensus in Congress on how to raise/save $16,000,000,000 is enough to eventually discourage most any optimistic lawmaker.

The provision in the recently adopted WRDA 2016 bill is credited to Peter DeFazio, who has the support and cooperation of Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), but a little history is worth noting. The objective of direct or mandatory spending from the HMTF and other infrastructure trust funds was an objective of this committee back when Bill Shuster’s late father, Bud Shuster (R-PA), was chairman of the committee and introduced the Truth in Budgeting Act.

What are the chances of the provision staying in the bill and becoming law? It’s hard to say. Even the delayed gratification strategy will run up against opposition in Congress and the Executive Branch. I expect it will hear objections from the Appropriations and Budget Committees. The former would likely would lose jurisdiction and the latter just doesn’t like mandatory spending even if it is secured by a dedicated tax or user fee. The White House Office of Management & Budget thinks similarly. Long considered the fiscal and policy nemesis of the civil works program, OMB will have a hard time dealing with the idea of the Corps getting its hands on more money. (Legislative Trivia: the House Budget Committee that in a separate report made its arguments against Bud Shuster’s Truth in Budgeting bill was chaired by John Kasich (R-OH)).

To be clear, there are legitimate arguments to be made against making spending from the HMTF mandatory, but if one is looking for a solution to the long-standing problem of under investment in the maintenance of the nation’s navigation system one finds no other practical options.

Okay, so the DeFazio provision will encounter opposition, perhaps debilitating opposition, in the next months. For the moment let’s focus on who will like the policy change represented by the DeFazio provision. Those are the port directors. Also port authority commissioners, maybe some elected municipal officials, governors, and of course, the industries and other stakeholders who depend on reliable harbor maintenance. They will have to make themselves heard on the issue if it has a chance of staying in the bill.

And if it succeeds in becoming law, they will just have to wait until 2027, knowing that the wait will be worth it.  Pbea