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Final Water Transportation Bill Released

DANIEL LOOKER 05/15/2014 @ 6:25pm Business Editor

The final draft of legislation to authorize improvements to the nation's water transportation system was released today by House and Senate leaders who've been negotiating for months.

The Conference Report to H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), was filed in the House of Representatives Thursday and could come up for a vote in the House and Senate as early as next week, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

It would be the first time Congress has updated the authorizing legislation known as WRDA, the Water Resources Development Act, since 2007. Commodity groups, barge lines, and shippers have been working several years to get legislation passed that could help repair the nation's aging locks and dams, as well as improving dredging in U.S. harbors, which will welcome larger ships when the expanded Panama Canal opens in 2015 or early 2016.

"This measure will strengthen our nation’s transportation network, keep America competitive in the global marketplace, and reform and streamline the way we move forward with improvements to our ports, locks, dams, and other water resources infrastructure," the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA) said in a press release. "This legislation is about jobs and our country’s economic prosperity, and I look forward to bringing it back to the House for a final vote."

The measure will gradually shift more of an import tax set up for harbor maintenance to actually pay for dredging. Currently, only half of the tax is used on harbors, with the rest going into other federal programs.

It also makes the federal government take over more of the cost of completing the Olmsted Lock and Dam project on the Ohio River, which has been plagued by cost overruns. That will free up more funds to improve and maintain the rest of the inland waterway system managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The final version of the House bill known as WRRDA is long-term authorizing legislation. Think of it as a farm bill for waterways and harbors. Progress will still depend on annual appropriations from Congress, said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition based in Ankeny, Iowa.

"We are hopeful that the WRDA conference report will be passed by both the full House and Senate and subsequently signed by President Obama," Steenhoek said in an email message to Agriculture.com and others. "I do not anticipate any roadblocks to this occurring. As you may know, when Congress sets out to address the inland waterway system, there are two primary steps: 1) the authorization step, and 2) the appropriations step. A WRDA bill provides authorization, or a blueprint, for how the system will be enhanced. It becomes the strategy for the inland waterway system. The second step, the appropriations step, has historically been more contentious since that is when actual funds are allocated to those projects and activities authorized by WRDA. It's essential to have a WRDA bill passed so that we can proceed to the appropriations step."

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