Witnesses push for billions in water infrastructure funding during Senate hearing

Witnesses before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Wednesday about U.S. water infrastructure needs urged the panel to reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in 2018 and ensure the country’s water infrastructure is included in the Trump administration’s upcoming Infrastructure investment plan.

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Officials emphasized to the committee that WRDA funding not only provides the authorization for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work on projects critical to maintaining the nation’s water infrastructure, including locks and dams, inland waterways and ports, but also that without the funding, critical components of the nation’s economy and distribution channels face imminent failure.

“Over 99 percent of U.S. overseas trade volume moves through coastal channels that the Corps maintains,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), ranking member of the committee, in an opening statement. “Additionally, the Corps’ inland waterways and locks form a freight network – think of it as a ‘water highway’ – connecting waterways and ports and providing direct access to international markets.”

Carper identified more than $200 billion for maintenance and authorized but unconstructed projects within the waterway and port infrastructure, but noted that it was challenging for the Corps of Engineers to address those issues on its annual budget of $4.6 billion.

The investment backlog is reflected in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card that assigned the country’s levies, dams and inland waterways a D grade.

Witnesses testified that many waterway systems are aging out of their effectiveness and are in critical need of updating or repairs.

Scott Robinson, port director of the Muskogee City-County Port Authority in Oklahoma, used the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS), a 445-mile multipurpose waterway between Oklahoma and Arkansas that serves as a critical access point to the Port of Muskogee, one of the nation’s inland ports, as an example of the critical state the country’s waterways are in.

Robinson testified that while MKARNS generated $8.5 billion in sales, creates 55,872 jobs and provides $289 million in taxes to the national economy, funding for maintenance and structural improvements along the waterway are lacking. The waterway has a backlog of more than $143 million in critical maintenance issues, many of which have a 50 percent chance of failure within the next five years.

The issues at MKARNS were similar to other waterway systems across the country, he said.

“We are fixing critical port and infrastructure issues as close to failure as possible, and in some cases after it fails, and on an emergency basis,” Robinson said. “This is not an acceptable asset management strategy. It’s a prescription for failure.”

William Friedman, chairman-elect of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), said that significant investment in the country’s waterways and ports would grow the U.S. economy and jobs, while increasing the nation’s competitiveness in the global market.

Friedman asked the committee to authorize the nation’s ports to make full use of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, including its surplus revenues, to allow the Corps of Engineers to fully maintain the nation’s ports, as well as catch up on the backlog of issues facing the ports. Friedman further asked for more funding for WRDA to deepen harbors and ports to accommodate larger freighters. All told, Friedman said the APPA identified $66 billion in potential waterside and landside investments that are needed over the next 10 years in order to realize the benefits from an expected $155 billion in infrastructure investments for the ports.

Julie Ufner, associate legislative director at the National Association of Counties, testified that some counties have seen an increase in time and money spent on projects due to Corps of Engineers regulations and processes. In Orange County, Calif., she said, cleaning debris from several hundred miles of flood control channels required the count to get a permit from the Corps of Engineers – a process that took approximately 3 years and added another $3.5 million to the project.

Ufner asked the committee members to include in WRDA language that provides a framework to bring state and local governments and the Corps of Engineers together for meaningful conversations on how they can better work together.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) asked if allowing states to use freight funds through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, of 2015 might help states invest in waterway infrastructure.

Robinson said the concern was whether states would focus on waterway systems over roads and bridges.

“I think we need more tools in our belt to address these issues and that would be one more tool,” Robinson said. “The question is will states that are focused on their road needs, allocate money to waterways. And how much of those expenditures would they allow from those funds for waterways. Would they use it to cost-share on new projects?”

Instead, Robinson recommended states use Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act funds, since the funds represent a loan from the federal government and would be paid back.

The hearing lays the groundwork for the WRDA reauthorization process this year before the most recent authorization expires in December.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the committee chairman, said the hearing would help committee members impress upon Congress the importance of investing in the country’s waterways when President Trump releases his infrastructure investment plan in the coming weeks.