Raising the Grade: How the 2016 Water Resources Development Act Can Improve America’s Ports and Inland Waterways

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In this second post of a three-part blog series, we’re looking at projects, policy changes and programs included in S. 2848, the Water Resources Development Act of 2016. Read about how WRDA can improve Dams and Levees. Now up, Ports and Inland Waterways

Ports and Inland Waterways: Improving the Movement of Goods and Commerce

The U.S. inland waterway system consists of over 12,000 miles of inland and intra-coastal waterways, with over 240 lock chambers, along with over 300 commercial harbors. Domestically, 5% of all tonnage moved in the U.S. and almost 4% of the total value of all freight transported over the entire U.S. transportation system is moved by water.

In the last two years significant strides have been made to address the infrastructure challenges faced by ports and inland waterways. Funding and grants for multimodal freight in the FAST Act, updates to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) and increasing the diesel fuel fee to increase collections by the Inland Waterway Trust Fund have all been viewed as positive steps.  However, under current authorized funding levels, there is an estimated $11 billion in unmet needs.

The Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (S.2848) extends several provisions included in WRDA14, makes important changes to maintenance and deepening programs, and authorizes several new studies and reports.

One of the benefits of keeping WRDA bills on a two year cycle is that policy changes, including those in the prior cycle that did not work as intended can be tweaked. This is exactly the case for the HMTF.  WRDA14 set percentage goals for HMTF expenditures (e.g. in 2016  spend 69% of the receipts from 2015, in 2017 spend 71% of the receipts from 2016). A slowdown in the global economy decreased HMTF receipts (which is funded by a tax placed on the value of goods) and therefore the annual percentage goals, while higher than the year before, were still lower in actual dollars. The HMTF is still flush with cash that ports dutifully collected for maintenance and need to prepare for a post-Panamax world. WRDA16 provides a backstop for HMTF and ensures funds will continue to be allocated incrementally higher each year.

Another major provision that will help U.S. ports accommodate post-Panamax ships is to increase the federally authorized depth of projects from 45 to 50 feet. The current cost-share depth for navigation channel deepening was established in WRDA 1986 at a 75 percent federal/25 percent non-federal split for depths to 45 feet, and an even 50 percent split for depths greater than 45 feet. WRDA 2014 revised the maintenance dredging cost-share depth to 50 feet from 45 feet. WRDA16 will follow WRDA14 by applying the same cost share for deepening projects.

Taken together WRDA16 is a positive step for improving the nation’s ports and inland waterways. In our next blog post, we will explore how drinking water and wastewater are addressed in this year’s WRDA bills.

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