Last Wednesday, the U.S. House passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R. 3080) by a vote of 417-3. The bill was introduced by Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA) along with 47 cosponsors was described as a “jobs bill” by the senator. According to the Congressional Budget Office if all of the projects authorized in the bill receive appropriations it could lead to $8.2 billion in spending of federal funds on water infrastructure construction projects. This would include $3.5 billion in federal funding from 2014 – 2018 and another $4.7 billion in funds from 2019 – 2023. These projects cover dredging of ports, hurricane and storm damage risk reduction, environmental restoration and flood risk management.
One of the key components of the bill is aimed at speeding up project delivery by streamlining the environmental review process. The bill would designate the Army Corps of Engineers as the lead agency in charge of environmental review. It would also limit the duration of feasibility studies for construction projects to only 3 years and limit the cost of any study to $3 million. The bill would also require that reviews of any feasibility study for a project occur concurrently as opposed to sequentially and would eliminate the requirement of a reconnaissance study prior to a feasibility study being conducted. Projects with a cost exceeding $10 million would no longer be required to have a review of the cost effectiveness of the design. Streamlining the review process and eliminating some of the red tape is great as long as it can be done without compromising the integrity of the environmental review.
Another highlight of the bill is the establishment of a Public-Private Partnership Pilot Program. The program would identify at least 15 projects to be undertaken for costal harbor improvement, channel improvement, inland navigation, flood damage reduction, aquatic ecosystem restoration and hurricane and storm damage reduction. Because a number corporations rely heavily on waterways and ports to transport good and materials expect projects that focus on improvements to harbors, channels and inland navigation to garner the most interest from the private sector.
Despite the fact that the bill is being touted as being free of earmarks it does authorize final feasibility studies to be conducted on 23 specific projects. These include five navigation projects, five flood risk management projects, three hurricane and storm damage risk reduction projects, one hurricane and storm damage risk reduction and environmental restoration project and nine environmental restoration projects. Florida was the big winner with six projects authorized for final feasibility studies. North Carolina and Louisiana each had three and Texas, California, Minnesota all had two apiece. Georgia, Kansas, Iowa, North Dakota, Kentucky, Mississippi and Maryland each had one project authorized. The numbers are off because some projects are located in more than one state.
The bill also authorizes modifications to two currently ongoing projects. The modified projects include authorizing construction of the Miami Harbor navigation project in Florida to be constructed at a total cost of $152,510,000 and the Little Calumet River Basin (Cady Marsh Ditch) flood control project in Indiana to be constructed at a total cost of $268,988,000.
The good news from all of this is that Congress was able to set aside party difference and get a bill passed that would create water infrastructure construction jobs and get them to the table quicker. The bad news is that the Army Corps of Engineers currently has a backlog of about 1,000 projects worth about $60 billion and despite the $8.2 billion in spending on projects the bill could create it also calls for the deauthorization of $12 billion worth of projects that were authorized prior to the last Water Resources Development Act in 2007. The House bill also has to be consolidated in conference committee to match up with its companion bill in the Senate the Water Resources Development Act (S. 601) which was approved back in May before being presented for presidential approval.