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AASHTO Journal

Water Resources Development Act on Minds of Senate EPW Committee

On Thursday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on a draft Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bill released last week by EPW Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The draft is a product of ongoing conversation between majority and minority staff and represents an indication of the Chair's vision for the reauthorizing legislation required for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers navigation mission, as well as other critical federal water resource issues concerning navigation, recreation, and environmentally sensitive federal lands, according to Boxer.

At the same time as Thursday's hearing, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' Standing Committee on Water Transportation (SCOWT), led by Virginia Department of Transportation Secretary and former Maritime Administrator Sean T. Connaughton, met in Pittsburgh at the AASHTO Annual Meeting to discuss the draft WRDA legislation. SCOWT also got a first-hand look at the state of locks and dams in Pittsburgh as the committee ventured out to the Emsworth Locks and Dams on a tour hosted by the Port of Pittsburgh's Jim McCarville and USACE Col. William Graham, the Pittsburgh District Engineer.

WRDA was first authorized in 1986 with the intent of a recurring two-year reauthorization cycle. However, WRDA was last authorized in 2007 following the congressional override of President Bush's veto. Thursday's hearing focused on the authorization of the Act, as committee members used recent natural disaster Hurricane Sandy as an example of why the Act is important.

"This comes on the heels of Sandy," said Boxer at the beginning of the hearing. "We need to ensure communities have critical flood protection, which is one of the primary parts of this bill."

SCOWT has called on Congress to spend all of the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) revenues on maintaining harbors, as the tax is legislated to do. MAP-21 included a "Sense of the Congress" provision in regard to HMT reform that SCOWT hopes will now be included in WRDA.

For state DOTs, WRDA is the legislative mechanism by which the US Army Corps of Engineers directs its resources to dredge coastal ports and harbors, as well as construct, operate, and repair locks and dams on the nations inland and Great Lakes waterways. These critical infrastructure projects are a vital part of the national freight transportation network, allowing large volumes of imports and exports to efficiently move to markets in the US and abroad.

State DOTs often contribute significant resources to act as "local sponsors" of the Corps studies mandated before a dredging project can commence. With the expansion of the Panama Canal expected to be completed in 2015, states on the East and Gulf Coasts expect much larger container ships to pass through the canal en route to ports in their region. However, these ships cannot land in U.S. harbors if these harbors are not adequately maintained at a safe dredge depth.

Recently, Florida directed over $70 million to complete the dredging of the Port of Miami. Because the channel is federally owned, however, the project cannot commence without a WRDA authorization.

For states on the inland and Great Lakes waterways, lack of sufficient lock and dam maintenance threatens to impede commerce as the infrastructure ages past its ability to safely and efficiently operate. A recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute examined a scenario that would see the number of trucks double on Missouri and Illinois highways if locks on the Mississippi River near St. Louis failed.

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