DALLAS An $8.2 billion water infrastructure bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives with almost unanimous support Wednesday in the first major legislation considered in Congress after the recent 16-day federal government shutdown.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013 was adopted on a 417-3 vote in a flurry of good will by members of both parties. The measure, HR 3080, will now be reconciled in conference committee with the Senate version, S 601, which was approved in May on a similar lopsided vote, 83-14.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he was proud of the strong bipartisan support for what he called a jobs bill.
“It’s another example of the people’s house focusing on ways to strengthen our economy,” he said.
The water infrastructure legislation is one of the few jobs bills considered by Congress this year, said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va.
“It boosts our ports, allows commodities to move more efficiently along our inland waterways, and enables our water transportation network to support increased economic opportunity,” said Rahall, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Rahall said the House legislation “stops the finger-in-the dike solutions to our water infrastructure challenges and instead invests in these corridors of commerce which create jobs and support increased economic opportunity.”
The White House issued a statement Oct. 23 supporting passage of the House measure, but said the bill “should be improved with additional reforms and modifications of problematic provisions.”
The Office of Management and Budget said several projects not recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers were included on the authorized list, and objected to the measure’s streamlined environmental reviews.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who will chair the conference committee, said work will begin soon on reconciling the two bills.
“We must invest in our nation’s flood control projects, navigation routes and ports, and ecosystems,” said Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The House bill gives the go-ahead to 23 navigation, flood protection, and environmental projects across the country already being studied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but does not actually fund any of them.
An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office projects spending authorized by HR 3080 at $3.5 billion through fiscal 2018 and another $4.7 billion from 2019 through 2023.
The six largest projects will cost a total of $8.8 billion, with the federal government responsible for $5.3 billion. Work on the 17 other projects will cost about $1 billion over the next five years.
The legislation removes 13 inactive projects costing an estimated $12 billion that were authorized in earlier water bills.
The House bill calls for the secretaries of the Army and Treasury to work with stakeholders to determine whether tax-exempt bonds and user fees could help fund inland waterways infrastructure projects, supporting the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which now receives revenues from an existing dedicated diesel fuel tax.
The version adopted by the Senate incorporates a five-year, $250 million pilot loan program for local and state governments, but the House bill does not. Loans made through the Senate’s proposed program could be used to supplement taxable bonds for water infrastructure projects but not tax-exempt debt.
Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities, said the water bill was long overdue after six years without a new authorization.
The most recent water bill was passed in 2007. The legislation is usually re-authorized every two years.
“Our nation desperately needs new water resources legislation this year to fortify our infrastructure, create good-paying U.S. jobs, grow our economy and enhance America's international competitiveness,” Nagle said.
More than a quarter of the annual gross domestic product is based on the value of goods that transit in and out of ports, he said.
“In order to keep our economic recovery progressing, we must ensure these goods can move efficiently, without avoidable and costly delays caused by inadequate or poorly maintained infrastructure,” Nagle said.