WASHINGTON — Sens. David Vitter and Barbara Boxer teamed up Tuesday to file their new waterway infrastructure bill that would expedite U.S. Army Corps of Engineers processes, set aside more dollars for river dredging, and speed up flood protection projects like southern Louisiana’s Morganza to the Gulf plan.
Boxer is the Democrat who chairs the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Vitter is the committee’s ranking Republican. They have partnered to shape the proposed Water Resources Development Act of 2013, a version of which Congress has not passed since 1997.
Vitter, R-La., called the effort a “very important, bipartisan” plan to create jobs, enhance national commerce and improve flood protection in Louisiana and the rest of the nation. Boxer, D-Calif., estimated the legislation would lead to 500,000 permanent or temporary jobs.
Boxer said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has assured her the legislation could reach the Senate floor as soon as late April.
“That’s a strange, unusual marriage,” Reid said Tuesday of the conservative and liberal pairing of Vitter and Boxer. “But I’m happy to hear it. That’s an important bill.”
Apart from speeding up the Corps of Engineers’ review and construction timelines, Vitter is particularly focused on getting the 20-years-in-the-making Morganza to the Gulf project moving and to protect the dollars in the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for river dredging projects.
The Morganza to the Gulf project that was delayed again last year involves a series of levees, locks and other systems through Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes that should, when complete, protect about 200,000 people against storm surge, such as those caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The project’s costs have skyrocketed. The corps missed deadlines, the costs increased with time and then the authority to proceed was “de-authorized” because of the cost adjustments.
The WRDA bill would prioritize and set timelines on projects once their assessment reports are federally authorized, which could occur with the Morganza to the Gulf protection system this year.
As for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, the dredging dollars are routinely raided by Congress each year for unrelated uses. The new WRDA bill would ensure the funds are reserved for dredging and port-related projects.
“That’s a major, major change that will mean a lot more dredging,” Vitter said.
Boxer said that by 2040, if nothing changes, the nation’s ports will have a $28 billion shortfall in waterway dredging needs. The end effect is a significant slowdown in the nation’s economic development and imports and exports, all of which leads to increased gasoline and grain prices and more.
Boxer and Vitter also reiterated that the legislation includes no earmarks and that it will not cost more than the last WRDA bill in 2007, although the price tag is not yet calculated.
The legislation would revamp the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vitter said, by implementing “budget monetary penalties — first time ever” when deadlines are missed. The bill also would speed up review and environmental impact time periods.
“We don’t get rid of any reviews,” Vitter said. “We do things more concurrently.”
Other aspects of the legislation include allowing local and state agencies to take the lead on some projects and to apply for federal loans to speed up flood protection projects when local dollars also are invested, he said.
The bill also gives priority to hurricane and storm damage projects in areas with significant flood risk where federal disaster declarations have been made in previous years. Many Louisiana projects would fit this prioritization, Vitter noted.
“I have seen the deep need of reforming the corps and making it more accountable,” he said.