By Keith Laing - 05/15/14 04:05 PM EDT
Lawmakers have filed a conference report on an $8.2 billion bill to boost U.S. ports and waterways, setting the stage for final passage of the measure next week.
Negotiations over the measure, which is known as the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), lasted for the better part of six months.
Lawmakers in both chambers said the port and waterways bill would boost shipping and cargo in the United States and help create jobs.
“The bipartisan, bicameral conference report on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) authorizes 34 critical Army Corps projects,” Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and David Vitter (R-La.) added in a summary of the water bill’s highlights.
“These projects, which have undergone congressional scrutiny and have completed reports of the Chief of Engineers, will strengthen our nation’s infrastructure to protect lives and property, restore vital ecosystems to preserve our natural heritage, and maintain navigation routes for commerce and the movement of goods to keep us competitive in the global marketplace,” the senators continued.
Boxer is the chairwoman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee and Vitter is the top ranking Republican on the panel.
The water bill identifies about $8 billion worth of new water infrastructure projects and authorizes funding for them, though the actual money will be doled out by appropriations committees.
The House and Senate initially took different approaches to identifying projects that would receive the OK for congressional funding, leading to the lengthy negotiations between the chambers.
The Senate's version of the measure relied on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make the water project selections, but Republicans in the House argued that doing so would delegate too much responsibility for federal spending away from Congress.
If the agreement the lawmakers formalized on is ultimately approved, it will be the first new water infrastructure funding package to be passed by Congress since 2007.
The funding for the port and water projects that are identified in the WRRDA bill will still have to be approved by appropriations in the House and Senate.
Port advocates hailed the bicameral agreement on bill to identify water infrastructure projects for future investment as a major step in boost U.S. waterways, however.
“Having waited seven long years since passage of the last water resources authorization bill, our U.S. member ports are extremely pleased to see a final reauthorization bill,” American Association of Port Authorities President Kurt Nagle said in a statement. “Our nation desperately needs this water resources legislation to fortify our infrastructure, create and maintain good-paying U.S. jobs, grow our economy and enhance America's international competitiveness.”
Among the projects that are identified for funding in the final water bill agreement are long-sought projects to deepen ports such as Jacksonville, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.; and Boston. Transportation advocates have warned that U.S. ports need to be expanded to be able to handle larger ships that are expected to come through the Panama Canal after the Central American channel is deepened next year.
The water bill agreement also includes a provision requiring lawmakers to use a majority of the money that is paid into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund by shipping companies to be used for port projects, providing a victory for Democrats who had complained about the shippers taxes being used to fund other areas of the federal budget.
The legislation also deauthorizes $18 billion worth of old projects that had been on the Army Corps.' dockets for multiple years, giving a win to Republicans who argued that previous water infrastructure funding measures contained wasteful spending.