Marine Transportation System

Posts Tagged ‘Transportation & Infrastructure’

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

 

Advertisements