WRDA debate continues in Senate

Published on: May 9, 2013

The Senate continues to debate its Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA) which provides for new authorization of projects for flood protection, port improvements and upgrades to the nation's aging locks and dams infrastructure.

Mike Steenhoek, director of the Soybean Transportation Coalition, said the two biggest issues of importance to agriculture within the bill are sufficient funding for locks and dams and full use of the revenue generated via the Harbor Maintenance Tax.

One of the main requests from agricultural interests was for the completion of the Olmstead lock and dam on the Ohio River to be financed through federal funding. What has been seen as the poster child for government bureaucracy and delayed funding has allowed for costs to skyrocket since it was first authorized in 1988.

Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) said the manager's amendment will now stop money from being sucked out of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for things such as the Olmstead project and instead help deepen ports as was intended.

Steenhoek added the manager's amendment to incrementally increase allocations to dredging and harbor maintenance until eventually all revenue generated by the tax will be used for its intended purpose is a "positive step."

"While we and other freight interests would like immediate 100% allocation of the revenue in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be used for its intended purposes, an incremental approach to achieving that objective is a favorable development," he said.

Steenhoek said ultimately the questions remain what is the new source of revenue that will allow increased investment for harbor maintenance projects? And secondly, what are the spending offsets that will allow revenue to be redirected to harbor maintenance projects?  "I see a willingness to direct additional revenue to this issue, but I still don't see where the money will come from," he explained.

Sen. Robert Casey (D., Pa.) was trying to generate support for raising the user fee on barge diesel fuel from 20 cents to 29 cents. The increase is supported by both barge carriers and their customers, including agricultural shippers and will provide the financial wherewithal to initiate and complete lock projects authorized by S. 601.

Essentially revenue raising measures must originate in the House first, so the amendment is essentially a "placeholder" for when the House takes up its version later this summer, Walmsley said.

Walmsley said he remains optimistic a final bill can make it to the President's desk this year. Normally the bill is updated biannually, but the last bill was approved in 2007. Groups such as the STC have advocated for deeper reforms and smarter allocations of how to better maintain and prioritize infrastructure projects.

Walmsley noted there are some good reforms included in the Senate bill including streamlining and how the Corps of Engineers prioritizes projects, including capping out the Olmstead project. "We're definitely moving in the right direction with a more sustainable path on infrastructure funding," he said.

The Senate also unanimously adopted a bipartisan amendment to WRDA which modifies the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Oil Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule scheduled to go into effect on May 10, 2013 and to be enforced at the end of September 2013.

Sens. Deb Fischer (R., Neb.) Mark Pryor (D., Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D., La.), and Jim Inhofe (R., Okl.) introduced the amendment as a solution to raise the exemption levels for fuel storage capacity to better reflect the spill risk and financial resources of farms.