The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineHouse passes $10-billion Water Resources Development Act, focus turns to Senate
Policy Briefing

House passes $10-billion Water Resources Development Act, focus turns to Senate

By Jay Landers

Efforts to ensure timely enactment of comprehensive water resources legislation received a boost in late July with the House’s passage of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020. The $10-billion bill (H.R. 7575) would authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct 34 new projects, conduct 35 feasibility studies, and expedite the completion of 41 ongoing feasibility studies. In addition, the bipartisan legislation would free billions of dollars in federal funding for harbor maintenance needs and effect numerous changes in Corps policy. 

Passed in the House by voice vote on July 29, H.R. 7575 would fulfill a longstanding goal of many infrastructure advocates, including ASCE, to end the practice whereby Congress fails to spend down the balance in the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). Funded by a tax on cargo handled at U.S. ports, the HMTF is intended to provide a source of funding for operations and maintenance activities at federally authorized ports and harbors. However, congressional appropriators routinely spend far less than the amount available in the HMTF because doing so helps offset shortfalls elsewhere in the federal budget. Currently, the trust fund has a balance of approximately $10 billion, according to a fact sheet on H.R. 7575 from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. 

“I am particularly proud this legislation completes my decades-long mission to reform the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund by allowing billions in already collected HMT funds to be used for their intended purpose—ensuring [that the] maintenance needs of ports and harbors across the country are met,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the bill’s lead sponsor, in a July 29 news release. 

By seeking to force Congress to appropriate the existing balance in the HMTF, DeFazio and his supporters aim to complete a process of boosting harbor maintenance funding that they began with the enactment in March of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (P.L. 116-136). The law included language to prevent Congress from allowing future funds to languish unspent in the HMTF. During the next decade, the trust fund is expected to receive an estimated $24.5 billion in revenues, all of which will now be available to be appropriated. However, the CARES Act did not address the unspent funds already residing in the HMTF.

Such a change in how Congress handles the existing balance in the HMTF is something that ASCE has been “hoping to see for years,” says Caroline Sevier, the Society’s director of government relations. “We were happy to see that [the balance] is going to be spent down for its intended purpose.” 

In another provision related to navigation, H.R. 7575 would modify how the federal government pays for the construction and rehabilitation of projects on the nation’s inland waterways systems. Currently, federal spending for such projects takes the form of 50 percent general revenues and 50 percent funding from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF), which receives revenues from a tax on diesel fuel paid by commercial users of the inland waterways. Under H.R. 7575, this funding ratio would shift to 65 percent general revenues and 35 percent funding from the IWTF. This arrangement would extend through fiscal year 2027. ASCE supports this proposed change, Sevier notes. “We’re happy to see that cost share adjusted,” she says. 

“The updated cost share will encourage faster construction and expedite completion of key inland waterways navigation projects similar to previous WRDA bills that have changed the cost share for certain projects, with positive results,” said Emily Feenstra, ASCE’s managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives, in a July 15 letter to the leadership of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that voices the Society’s support for H.R. 7575. “This amendment to the cost share is critical if we are to modernize the nation’s inland waterways infrastructure and close the investment gap.”

H.R. 7575 would fulfill a longstanding goal of many infrastructure advocates.

However, the White House opposes the proposed change. “The Administration believes the users’ share of these investments should continue to be 50 percent,” according to a statement of administration policy (SAP) issued in regard to H.R. 7575 by the White House Office of Management and Budget on July 29. “The Corps has previously estimated that the annual receipts from the existing diesel fuel tax cover less than 10 percent of the total cost that the Corps incurs to support commercial navigation on these waterways, after accounting for infrastructure operation and maintenance costs, which are currently borne by taxpayers,” the SAP states. “Reducing the users’ share of the cost of capital projects would result in the taxpayer paying for nearly all of the cost that the Corps incurs to support commercial navigation on the inland waterways. The Administration believes beneficiaries should pay their fair share.”

As for feasibility studies prepared by the Corps for projects pertaining to flood-risk management or hurricane and storm damage reduction, H.R. 7575 would direct the Corps to prepare a summary of the “natural feature or nature-based feature alternatives that were evaluated in the development of the feasibility report,” according to the text of the legislation. If such alternatives were not included in a feasibility report, the Corps would be required to explain its decision not to recommend them. ASCE supports this provision, Sevier says, calling it a “step in the right direction.”

Also supported by ASCE, H.R. 7575 would make minor changes to the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Program, which is overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The legislation would amend the National Dam Safety Program Act by adding “clarifying language” intended to enable FEMA to run the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Program more efficiently, Sevier says.

Overall, ASCE views H.R. 7575 as solid legislation worthy of support. “We’re quite pleased with the bill,” Sevier says. “It’s a big success. And it was done in a bipartisan manner, so hopefully we can get this across the finish line.”

Congress passed WRDA bills in 2014, 2016, and 2018, and infrastructure advocates are hopeful that lawmakers will do so again this year. That said, time is not on the side of those in Congress seeking to enact a WRDA bill in 2020. The full Senate has yet to take up the America’s Water Infrastructure Act (S. 3591), which is the version of WRDA legislation that sailed through the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on a unanimous vote in May (see “Senate Committee Passes Bills Addressing Water Resources, Clean Water, and Drinking Water,” Civil Engineering, May/June 2020).

Until recently, Senate observers had expected the upper chamber to turn to S. 3591 in September. However, the window for doing so is “probably closing,” Sevier says, following the failure of Congress and the White House to reach an agreement in early August on the next COVID-19 relief package. As a result, that issue, along with the need to pass annual appropriations bills or a continuing resolution by the end of the fiscal year on September 30, will likely occupy nearly all the Senate’s attention this month. Furthermore, the upcoming elections mean that Congress will be out of session for most of October. 

“With all that on their plate, I think it will be pretty hard for the Senate also to pass a WRDA bill, even though it is bipartisan,” Sevier says, though a lame-duck session could prove fruitful for such endeavors. To this end, congressional staffers have begun working behind the scenes in preparation for a possible House–Senate conference to resolve differences between each chamber’s water resources bill, Sevier notes.

Meanwhile, Congress will also have to win over the White House. Although it refrained from issuing a veto threat for H.R. 7575 in its July 29 SAP, the Trump administration stopped well short of endorsing the legislation.

This column first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.

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