- - Wednesday, July 23, 2014

As we work to grow jobs and the economy, we should always remember the importance of trade and maritime commerce as well as the infrastructure necessary to support it modern, properly dredged ports and waterways.

One out of every six American jobs depends on trade and maritime commerce. $180 billion of goods per year travel on American waterways, to and from American ports. At the center of it all, the mighty Mississippi serves 31 states, in the heartland of America, which is the breadbasket of the world.

Perhaps all this is more obvious to me than to most. I grew up in New Orleans, watching huge grain and other ships plowing that mighty Mississippi, and I live with my family just outside the city now. That background has helped spur me to lead the effort on these issues as the lead Republican on the Senate’s infrastructure committee.

And unlike most recent policy work in Washington, that effort has actually paid off. I joined with the Democratic chair of the committee, Barbara Boxer of California given our completely different political philosophies, it doesn’t get more bipartisan than that to author and pass the Senate’s Water Resources Reform and Development Act. We then developed a final version with our House counterparts and passed it with huge bipartisan majorities. It was just signed into law by President Obama on June 10.

The legislation does four big things, all designed to grow tens of thousands of new maritime and port jobs.

First, it reforms the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) to help ensure that user fees paid by shippers are actually used for their intended purpose dredging and maintaining our ports and waterways. Up to now, this has been a trust fund in name only, with half the money being stolen by the Administration in a typical year and used for completely unrelated programs. The bill ramps up HMTF expenditures to achieve full utilization over ten years, prioritizes funding for ports that move 90% of our nation’s commerce, adds additional criteria to the allocation of HMTF funds such as commercial fishing and energy sector activities, and lowers the federal maintenance depth from 45-feet to 50-feet to accommodate larger vessels.

Second, the bill makes changes to another maritime fund, the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, to break through the logjam there that had stalled necessary lock systems and related projects. This will allow vital infrastructure work to move forward like the Olmsted Lock and Dam in Illinois and Kentucky and the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock in Louisiana.

Third, the act streamlines the environmental review process by requiring better coordination and accountability among the agencies who issue environmental permits. All agencies involved in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process must now set hard deadlines to ensure that all environmental reviews are completed at the same time, avoiding uncoordinated reviews that delay projects. The legislation also gives local project sponsors more flexibility to resolve concerns at the highest levels when there are disagreements between the agencies. And it includes accountability measures that penalize agencies who aren’t getting their work done.

Fourth, we take major steps to reform the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by accelerating the project delivery process, requiring more accountability on project schedules, increasing transparency of internal Corps decisions, and penalizing the Corps for the first time ever when it misses critical deadlines. The bill also increases local control of project management and delivery decisions and provides great opportunities for public-private partnerships on water infrastructure projects.

Perhaps as important as all of the above, we accomplished this with no earmarks and no increase in the deficit. We even crafted a provision that takes old, stalled Corps projects off the books as we move forward with new, necessary work like deepening the lower Mississippi River and the Port of Savannah. Both of those projects are absolutely vital in light of the widening of the Panama Canal, which is introducing larger ships to our maritime system.

Passing WRRDA is one of the most positive actions Congress has taken this year. It’s fully bipartisan legislation that serves as a real bright spot in an otherwise gridlocked Washington. Most importantly, it’s a substantive step forward in getting an otherwise sluggish economy moving down the river again.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is the lead Republican for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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