How we build infrastructure and keep America competitive

This week, Congress is taking a major step in addressing an all too common problem: the red tape and bureaucracy that make it practically impossible for the federal government to effectively carry out one of its fundamental responsibilities.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House overwhelmingly (412 to 4) approved the conference report to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), legislation that directly affects America’s ability to improve its ports, locks, dams, and other infrastructure essential to the efficient flow of commerce.  The Senate could take up the measure as soon as tomorrow.

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Adam Smith, the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations, argued the three essential duties of government are to provide security, preserve justice and erect and maintain public works to facilitate commerce. Our Founding Fathers also understood the important role of the national government in carrying out these responsibilities. They wisely remedied the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation by directing Congress, in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, to establish post roads and to regulate interstate commerce. In doing so they laid the groundwork for connecting the country through trade and travel and recognized the critical role of an efficient, robust infrastructure network.

Caring for our vital water resources infrastructure is the mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At one time it took the Corps just a few years to study a potential improvement, but today it can take the Corps up to 10, 12, or 15 years – with no spending limit – just to study a single project. This laborious process results in a significant waste of time and money, and it must be improved.

While this may sound a like a problem just for cities with ports or along major rivers, nearly every product we import and every domestically grown or manufactured good we sell to another country reaches its final destination by water.  This problem hampers the entire country’s competitiveness.

Fortunately, WRRDA is the most policy and reform focused legislation of its kind in the last two decades, and it sets a new course for the Corps of Engineers by bringing overdue reforms, greater accountability, and ensuring fiscal responsibility. 

WRRDA sets hard deadlines and cost limits for Corps studies. No more studying infrastructure projects to death. Time is money, and by capping this process to three years, establishing a $3 million cost limit, and requiring all three levels of Corps management to review proposals concurrently rather than consecutively, we can restore reason to the business of getting America’s infrastructure moving again.

It’s also time to get the federal government out of the way of progress. The legislation creates an innovative public-private partnership program, and allows state, local, and private sector parties to contribute their own funds when doing so would accelerate the permit review process, get improvements under way or completed sooner, or keep locks and dams open longer.

The measure is also the most fiscally responsible water resources development legislation in history. WRRDA contains no earmarks and increases transparency, accountability, and Congressional oversight without ceding Constitutional Congressional responsibility to the executive branch. Unlike previous bills of its kind, WRRDA reduces the often outdated and unnecessary work assigned to the Corps over the years. WRRDA deauthorizes $18 billion in projects, more than fully offsetting new authorizations and shrinking the Corps’ project backlog. And under the legislation, if any new projects linger too long without funding, a good governance trigger mechanism sunsets them and gets them off the books, preventing further backlogs from developing.

Cementing these reforms into law is good for America, from East Coast to West Coast, and everywhere in between. Fundamentally, WRRDA is about jobs. Not just the jobs in constructing improvements to our infrastructure, but current and future jobs that depend on a modern, efficient transportation system that will allow our nation to compete and prosper in a global marketplace.

Shuster has represented Pennsylvania's 9th Congressional District since 2001. He sits on the Armed Services Committee and is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.