WRRDA Has Finally Arrived

Will BrownAfter several months of planning and patience, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has introduced the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R. 3090). WRRDA was introduced on Sept. 11, 2013, with three co-sponsors joining Chairman Shuster: Committee Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Water Resources Subcommittee Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.). These four men, who comprise the leadership of both parties with jurisdiction over WRRDA, are responsible for the delicate balance of bipartisanship this bill has struck.

Last authorized in 2007, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) is responsible for authorizing projects for the Army Corps of Engineers concerning America’s ports, harbors, water navigation, levees, locks and dams. Typically, WRDA has been passed as an “earmark” bill because of the narrow and specific districts and jurisdictions which these authorized projects will benefit. However, because Congress has adopted rules to ban all legislation containing earmarks, WRRDA had to strike a fine balance between authorizing projects which America’s waterway infrastructure needs and breaking the no-earmark rule.

To do this, WRRDA establishes a new process for reviewing, prioritizing and approving water resources development activities. First, the Army Corps of Engineers will publish a notice requesting proposals from non-federal interest for water resources projects. Secondly, the Army Corps will review these submissions and publish detailed information on each proposal, which will include a description of the project, its benefits and costs of those activities that meet Congress’ criteria. Third, Congress will then use these reviews to prioritize and determine future water resources development authorizations. By requiring potential project advocates to submit their proposal to the Army Corps of Engineers, rather than to their Member of Congress, the committee claims to be adding transparency to the process and avoiding nepotism by Members of Congress who would have, in the past, sought an earmark for projects. This new process should allow contractors the opportunity to foresee, plan for and bid on future projects in their areas.

Amending the process, WRRDA also addresses the bureaucracy inherent in federal projects. By setting hard deadlines and timetables on the time and cost of project studies and streamlining environmental reviews, projects will see a much faster delivery process. This will help contractors better prepare for their work as the review process is now capped at three years, which avoids project delays, which in some cases, have stretched into decades.

In addition, WRRDA increases the flexibility for non-federal interests. Current law limits the ability of non-federal interests to spend their own money to advance federal studies and projects. WRRDA will allow these non-federal interests and public utility companies to spend their own money on economic studies, the processing of permits and the operation, maintenance and improvements to inland waterways transportation systems. These reforms will greatly increase the flexibility with which projects can be authorized and funded.
Of particular interest to NUCA members is the establishment of a Water Infrastructure Public Private Partnership program (P3s). The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee boasts this program as an innovative financing mechanism to carry out and manage the design and construction of Army Corps projects by including the private sector. P3s will not only allow the private industry to utilize its own resources to build these projects, but will also allow the Army Corps to increase the number of projects it can authorize and construct, which will ultimately lead to more projects, more jobs and better infrastructure.

There are, however some things that are not included within WRRDA that NUCA would have liked to have seen. Beyond the P3 programs mentioned above, there are no financing mechanisms or authorizations. For procedural and political reasons, the committee chose not to include WIFIA or Private Activity Bond language within WRRDA out of fear they may open the bill to jurisdictions that could strain the delicate compromise the committee leadership has found. Including WIFIA would have given Clean Water Act jurisdiction to the bill, which could have stalled or sunk the bill on the Floor by opening the bill to environmental amendments from the left and anti-EPA amendments from the right — both of which could have destroyed the consensus between Chairmen Shuster and Gibbs and Ranking Members Rahall and Bishop. We applaud the leadership’s commitment to bipartisanship with respect to WRRDA, but believe that including innovative financing measures would have gained substantial bipartisan support, especially for those members without ports, harbors, levees or dams in their district who have almost nothing to show for their support of the current legislation. Every district in America relies on water infrastructure, and not a single one is without need for improvement. Innovative financing like WIFIA or Private Activity Bonds would have allowed all members the opportunity to gain from this legislation.

Moving forward, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee marked up the bill — the formal term for committee procedure to amend the legislation — on Thursday Sept. 19, 2013, with floor action expected in mid-to-late October. After what we hope will be passage by the House, both chambers will have passed water resources legislation. As a result, the House and Senate could agree to go to conference where a final package will be negotiated, or either chamber may act on the other chamber’s legislation, amend it and send it back and forth for a ping-pong like process.

Make no mistake, however, WRRDA is a cooperative, bipartisan piece of legislation that will make noticeable and sizeable reforms in the way America addresses water resources and waterways transportation. NUCA has sent a letter of support to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and will be working, not only for our priorities inclusion, but also toward the goal of enactment as law.

If you have any questions about WRRDA or how it may affect your business, please feel free to reach out to me at will@nuca.com.

Will Brown is NUCA’s Government Relations Manager.