By Leslie Wollack
Last week, the Senate continued consideration of S. 601, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), with debate expected to resume this week. The bill would authorize 18 new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) flood protection, navigation and ecosystem restoration projects while instituting a number of reforms to the process. Congress has not passed a WRDA bill in five years, and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee leaders have been working to maintain a bipartisan effort to gain Senate passage. Congress first authorized the program 1986 to be reauthorized every two years. In the past, WRDA legislation primarily contained earmarks.
The legislation, which NLC supports, contains a provision that would increase flexibility for non-federal sponsors of Corps projects, including a pilot program aimed at improving the quality and speed of projects by allowing local and state governments to take over as project manager for Corps projects. It also includes a five-year pilot program to provide additional water infrastructure financing opportunities for local governments. Known as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA, modeled after the successful TIFIA program), the bill authorizes $50 million annually to both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Corps for flood control, water supply and wastewater projects.
Based on the TIFIA model, this level of authorization is estimated to support at least $500 million annually in low interest loans for each EPA and the Corps. The program would allow local governments to receive loans and loan guarantees at U.S. Treasury rates for projects such as pipe replacement or rehabilitation, new or upgraded treatment plants, CSO and wastewater projects, reuse, desalination, capital projects to improve energy efficiency, and new water supply projects over $20 million.
Finally, recognizing the importance of ports and their impact on the national economy and job creation, one of the reforms in the legislation is a requirement that all of the proceeds from the Harbor Maintenance Tax be used for their intended purpose of port maintenance, a provision in line with NLC policy. The bill has undergone several changes since passing out of committee.
After the Senate debate began, Committee leaders Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and David Vitter (R-LA) brought forward a version that phases in the $700 million in annual harbor tax receipts through 2020, rather than spending down the fund receipts more quickly. The later version also includes provisions for project streamlining.
In the House, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA) has indicated that the House will develop its own bill rather than starting with the Senate bill; no timetable for introduction or consideration has been set. The Chairman has set passage of a WRDA as the committee's first priority and will first solicit member input before developing a bill.