The seven-year wait for an updated water infrastructure law appears to finally be over, as Senate and House negotiators May 15 released text of $12.3 billion, bipartisan agreement to reauthorize federal port and waterway programs. After nearly seven months of negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate-passed measures, the new Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) appears headed for completion.
The agreement would authorize several construction projects to be carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers, including: harbor and port dredging, inland waterway improvements, levee and dam safety ventures, and flood and natural disaster recovery and mitigation endeavors.
The authorization attempts to address the long-standing Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) issue by ratcheting up spending from the HMTF to reach 100 percent of annual revenues by 2025. Currently, only half of the revenues coming into the HMTF annually are spent, leading to a surplus of $8 billion waiting to be utilized. The bill attempts to streamline the project delivery process by speeding up environmental approvals through concurrent reviews and cross-agency coordination and limiting project feasibility studies to three years in duration and $3 million in federal costs. Current law has no caps on time or costs for these reviews.
The agreement makes a number of modifications to the structure and operation of the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRF)—fund capitalized by state and federal resources to finance drinking and waste water infrastructure improvements—to increase the affordability of SRF financing and provide state and local governments additional flexibility in the administration of these programs. It also contains various other public-private partnership opportunities, including a provision from the Senate-passed bill to establish a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program by authorizing $175 million over five years for water project financing — a proposal based on the successful surface transportation TIFIA program.
While authorizing these critical programs is a positive step, it is important to understand that water resource bills by themselves do not deliver funding for port and waterway projects. Once the projects are authorized, they are then eligible to receive funding in the annual appropriations process, something not easy to accomplish in recent years of fiscal austerity and budget cuts.
The House is expected to take up the compromise legislation May 20, and will then send it to the Senate for consideration. While the bill appears to have ample support in both bodies of Congress, ARTBA is urging all of its members to weigh in with their representatives and senators in support the bill’s passage.