With strong bipartisan support, the House Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA) of 2013 passed last month. A similar bill by the Senate passed in May. Together, the bills indicate that there is wide recognition among policymakers that the nation's waterway infrastructure needs to be repaired and modernized.
Approximately $185 billion worth of such goods as coal, petroleum, chemicals, grain, and fertilizer are transported on the nation's inland waterways. "It's an important mode of transportation for manufacturing," Robyn Boerstling of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) told IMT.
The next step is for the bills to go to conference and then for both chambers to approve the conference committee report, a relatively easy process.
Even though a conference committee has not yet been established, its chairs, Rep. Bill Shuster, (R-Pa.), who championed the House bill, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), have been reaching out to colleagues on both sides of the aisle so that any controversial aspects can be worked out before the committee meets.
The water resources development legislation is a two-year authorization. These bills have been adopted every two years since 1986, but there hasn't been any authorization since 2007.
"But this has been an unusual circumstance where we have had some time pass," said Boerstling. All of the current projects have continued to progress, but there are a lot of projects that have to move from the drawing board into a new phase where they are actually being built.
The goal as characterized by Shuster is to return the word of authorization to what is called "regular order" and doing it every two years -- as it is supposed to be done. With Shuster at the helm, NAM is hopeful that it will stay on track and not falter again.
Unlike the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which appropriated funds for highway projects, this legislation is a first step that only authorizes funding. It's not an appropriations bill.
Waterways projects are financed through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. Revenue for the fund is collected by a harbor maintenance tax levied on imports and domestic cargo arriving at ports that have federally maintained harbors and channels. The taxes bring in about $1.5 billion annually.
But Congress spends less than $1 billion dollars on harbor maintenance and dredging annually. NAM argues that spending should be increased because the nation's ports have huge needs.
On average there are 52 service disruptions per day on the entire inland waterway system, usually due to construction or a failure to a lock.
From NAM 's perspective, the three priorities in the legislation are financing inland waterways projects, increasing expenditures from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and environmental streamlining.
NAM believes that environmental streamlining is a vital element to ensure that the dollars go as far as they can. Boerstling said it's important that projects administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are approved on a better timeline and managed more effectively.
"Project delivery is really critical when we are looking at rehabilitating the nation's infrastructure system," she said. "Not just waterways and ports, but also highways and transportation systems."
There are about 23 civil works projects in the House bill that have been approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and are ready to go to the next level of funding authorization. Some of these are new projects and some are ongoing ones. The bill is designed to help keep them all on track.
"This will give our U.S. ports and inland waterways the tools to streamline the unwieldy federal process and red tape for strategic infrastructure initiatives while laying the groundwork for economic growth," said Paul Anderson, Tampa Port Authority's president and CEO, as reported by Material Handling & Logistics.
Passage of WRRDA would free the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey from sharing the cost of maintenance dredging of the channels serving the port with the Army Corps of Engineers, authority spokesperson Steve Coleman told IMT.
"Since the 50-foot harbor deepening project is almost complete, WRRDA has no impact on this project, but the focus will then shift to maintenance of the federal channels," he said. "If WRRDA passes as written, it could result in a potential savings to the port authority of about $15 million a year."