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WRDA Winds its Way to Passage

January 12, 2021   MarineLink

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In early October, Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI) reported in its newsletter Capitol Currents that the future of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020 hung in the balance, with many unknowns for its chances of being signed into law during the Lame Duck session of Congress that just concluded in late December.


But despite twists and turns and a roller coaster ride, WRDA was, indeed, passed by Congress on December 21 as part of the FY21 Omnibus Appropriations that included a $900 billion COVID Relief package. This was the last major legislative act before the 116th Congress was adjourned.


Included in the bill was WCI’s top WRDA priority to adjust the cost-share for construction and major rehabilitation of inland waterways projects. The bill modified the inland waterways project cost-share to 65% from the general fund of the Treasury and 35% from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) from the former 50%/50% cost-share split for FY 2021 through FY 2031. Any project that is under construction during this time frame will carry the new cost-share until construction of the project is completed. This adjustment will provide at least an additional billion dollars over a decade toward the modernization of the U.S. inland waterways transportation system.


Other highlights of the WRDA bill for the inland waterways industry included a 902 cost-limit increase for Kentucky Lock and a Chief’s Report authorization for the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway – Brazos River Floodgates and Colorado locks. The cost-limit increase will mean work on Kentucky Lock can continue to completion, and the Chief’s Report allows construction of new sector gates and channel widening to provide for more safe and efficient navigation while also improving water and sediment management capabilities on the Brazos River.


The Energy & Water Development Appropriations bill that funds the Corps was included in the Omnibus bill, which provided extremely strong funding for FY21. The measure also called for nine new study starts and seven new construction starts. And, for the first time since 2004, one of the new starts must be for inland waterways lock and dam modernization. A new lock project will have more than $15 million for the new construction start, with $113 million dollars appropriated from the IWTF that will provide for a robust $323 million construction program in FY21. This funding will serve to complete Chickamauga Lock and to efficiently fund Kentucky Lock.

The other win for WRDA 2020 is its passage on the biennial schedule it has stuck to since 2014. WRDA bills traditionally have been bipartisan legislation that unites both sides of the aisle, and WRDA 2020 had been as well, despite a few ups and downs along its journey to passage. The biennial cycle remains an important priority for stakeholders because it provides reasonable reliability that projects will be authorized for construction, or a policy change can be made in order to have the Corps operate more efficiently. And achieving passage in such a politically charged Congress in a Lame Duck session is also a victory.


In fact, with a few exceptions (e.g., 1999 and 2007), WRDA bills traditionally have become law during an even-number year, often a couple of months before an election, giving Members of Congress a victory to tout back home to their constituents. Since the first WRDA bill was enacted into law in 1974, six of 13 WRDA bills have been signed into law just prior to elections. That number should actually be eight vs. six, with Congress passing WRDAs in 1986 and 1988 prior to the elections but, for political reasons, those bills weren’t signed into law until post-election. Five of 13 WRDA bills have been enacted into law after the November contests in Lame Duck sessions. WCI’s other major WRDA win occurred in the Water Resources and Reform Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 that adjusted the cost-share for the Olmsted Locks and Dam project to allow for its more efficient completion to 85% general revenues from the Treasury and 15% from the IWTF.


At the passage of WRDA 2020, WCI expressed our thanks to the leadership of House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio and Ranking Member Sam Graves, and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso and Ranking Member Tom Carper, as well as all of Congress for passing this important bill.

WCI also offered thanks to Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, and House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey and Ranking Member Kay Granger for their efforts to pass the FY21 Omnibus package that included the E&WD bill.


We remain proud of WCI’s strategic vision and hard work on behalf of our members to significantly improve the funding mechanism to construct critical lock and dam infrastructure on our Nation’s inland waterways. In terms of the efficiencies gained by this WRDA 2020 policy change in such a difficult economic and political landscape, this represents an historic win for the stakeholders of WCI.

What a nice way to end a very challenging year and begin anew.