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Congress inches closer to agreement to boost Army Corps funding

Jul 27, 2016 05:00 PM
At the Olmsted Locks and Dam, new locks sit idle until the dam construction is finished. The recent Senate bill would increase funding for the project by $225 million.

Brian Gauvin

At the Olmsted Locks and Dam, new locks sit idle until the dam construction is finished. The recent Senate bill would increase funding for the project by $225 million.

It was a case of almost there, but not quite. A bipartisan effort in Congress to significantly increase funding for Army Corps of Engineers dredging and construction in fiscal year 2017 was rejected at the last moment in the House. 

Port and inland waterway authorities had earlier commended both parties in the Senate for agreeing to support the Energy & Water Development (E&WD) appropriations measure, which included an increase in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) from $1.26 billion to $1.3 billion.

A clause related to barring federal contractors from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity was proposed by House Democrats and rejected by Republicans.

The Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) was “disappointed” in the bill’s delay, group President Michael Toohey said in a statement. 

“We were very pleased to see an attempt to return to regular order for the appropriations process, whereby individual bills are passed,” Toohey said. “Both the Senate-passed FY17 E&WD appropriations bill and the House bill recommended strong funding levels for the Corps’ important work to ensure reliability on the inland waterways transportation system.”

The American Association of Port Authorities noted that the HMTF outlay is $160 million above the target for the year that was established in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014.  

“It also includes new navigation study and construction starts, as well as funding Donor and Energy Transfer Ports at $50 million, which is double last year’s funding level and the full amount authorized in WRRDA 2014,” the association said in a news release.  

The Waterways Council and its counterpart, the American Waterways Operators, highlighted another important feature: The bill would increase the president’s proposed construction account funding level by $723.65 million to $1.81 billion.

Under the E&WD appropriations measure, $375.65 million is made available for Inland Waterways Trust Fund priority navigation projects — an amount that makes full use of estimated IWTF annual revenues. The Olmsted Locks and Dam receives $225 million. 

Project investigations receives $126.5 million. Concerning the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP), WCI requested that $10 million be dedicated to pre-construction engineering and design (PED) for NESP, but the secretary of the Army will also decide whether to allocate these funds.  

The Corps’ operations and maintenance (O&M) account funding level is a record $3.17 billion, nearly $467 million higher than the administration’s request. Additional O&M money was provided at $700 million for flood storm damage risk reduction, shore protection, aquatic ecosystem restoration and related Corps mission projects as authorized by law.  

Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries receives $368 million for flood damage risk reduction efforts. Staff at the AAPA, WCI and AWO said they were “hopeful” that a compromise will be reached and the bill will pass with no significant changes.

Good news to offset this setback has come in the form of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016, which has been passed by the House. WCI said the main features are:
• Rejecting lockage fees/tolls to finance public-private partnerships (P3s). In a news release, the WCI stated that they “thank the members of the (House Transportation and Infrastructure) committee and the 75 organizational signers of the P3 letter urging that a lockage fee/tolling proposal for the Illinois Waterway not be included in WRDA.”  
• Authorizing 28 projects with a Chief of Engineers report, including Brazos Island Harbor ($116 million federal, $135 million non-federal) and $16.7 million for modification work on Calcasieu Lock in Louisiana.
• Encouraging the secretary to expedite certain chief’s reports and continue on to pre-construction engineering and design. 
• Returning to regular order with WRDA bills every two years.

Rep. John J. Duncan, R-Tenn., and Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., offered a bipartisan amendment, supported by WCI, to change the definition of a major rehabilitation project. It was withdrawn after committee leadership promised to work to address the issue in subsequent talks.

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