By Leslie Wollack
Last week, the Senate passed S. 601, the $12.2 billion Water Resources Development Act, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 83 - 14. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee leaders Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA) led the debate on the first WRDA bill to pass in six years. The legislation will fund U.S. Army Corps of Engineers port, drinking water, levees, dams and environmental restoration projects.
The bill includes project streamlining provisions similar to those included in last year's transportation authorization legislation. The provisions would make the Army Corps the lead agency for the review process and would fine resource agencies for missed deadlines. Sen. Boxer has promised hearings in the Environment and Public Works Committee on the WRDA provisions and MAP-21 transportation authorization provisions in response to concerns about the impact on the environment of the streamlining provisions.
Additionally, the legislation would fund harbor deepening to prepare for the expansion of the Panama Canal and replaces earmarks with a new process that gives more project selection authority to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. S. 601 would increase spending from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which currently has large balances.
Further, S. 601 would fund the pilot Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program to provide low-interest loans for large water projects that cost more than $20 million. Both the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would provide loans for large water projects, such as water recycling projects, habitat restoration, and groundwater cleanup, through the WIFIA program. The program is based on the highly successful and over-subscribed Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) that was included in the last year's transportation legislation.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) does not have a timeline for House action on S. 601 and has some concerns with the Senate bill including the selection criteria for projects. Since Congress banned earmarks, the Senate legislation authorizes projects based on a set a criteria that Shuster maintains gives too much authority to the Army Corps on project selection.