House approves $12 billion-plus water bill

WASHINGTON — The House passed the closest thing so far this year to an infrastructure bill — a $12 billion-plus bipartisan measure authorizing 34 water projects, ranging from flood protection in California and North Dakota to deepening the Port of Savannah and widening a Texas-Louisiana waterway that services the oil industry.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act passed Tuesday on a 412-4 vote. Lawmakers shook off criticism from conservative and watchdog groups like Heritage Action and Taxpayers for Common Sense that argued the bill should have done more to rein in wasteful government spending.

The Senate could vote on the bill before the end of the week, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature. The legislation is a bipartisan compromise of companion bills passed separately by the House and Senate last year. After months of negotiations, a final deal on it was reached last week.

Supporters, including business interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed, it an economy-boosting measure that could deliver thousands of new jobs.

“It’s a bipartisan bill, and it is a jobs bill,” said Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “It’s certainly going to create construction jobs, but the jobs I’m talking about are when American invests in its infrastructure and keeps us competitive.”

Shuster, R-Pa., and other lawmakers also argued the bill was more fiscally responsible than past water projects bills. On the House floor, he noted the bill puts an end to $18 billion in dormant water projects passed before 2007.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said the bill was overdue because the country has fallen behind on its investments in infrastructure. “Many of our coastal ports are ill prepared to take advantage of the expansion of the Panama Canal,” said Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the transportation committee.

That was not enough for some critics. A Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis released this week called the bill “a missed opportunity to reform management of our nation’s infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Adam Kolton, with the National Wildlife Federation, said the bill didn’t do enough to “sort out the beneficial projects from the boondoggles.” He said it also “hurts taxpayers again by increasing subsidies for the already heavily-subsidized navigation industry.”

With an estimated cost of $12.3 billion, the measure is a slimmer version of past water project bills. The last one in 2007, for example, had a price tag of $23.3 billion.

The new bill addresses pent-up demands by lawmakers, including addressing flooding concerns in places like Fargo, North Dakota and the Natomas Basin in the Sacramento, California area.

The bill authorizes spending up to $800 million for a flood diversion project that would protect the Red River Valley region of North Dakota and Minnesota, which includes Fargo. The region has suffered major flooding four of the past five years.

In California, the bill allows as much as $760 million in federal spending for a project that would strengthen levees of the Natomas Basin in the Sacramento area, which could protect more than 100,000 residents.

There are also big investments in projects that improve infrastructure for commerce.

The bill sanctions more than $748 million for dredging and widening of the 80-mile-long Sabine-Neches Waterway, which is billed as “America’s Energy Gateway” in servicing oil and natural gas refineries in Texas and Louisiana. It also authorizes $492 million for expanding and deepening the Port of Savannah. Actual funding of all the projects will require separate bills.

Congress is expected to consider another key infrastructure bill before the end of the year. A Senate panel last week approved a bill to shore up federal highway programs in time to stop a disruption in in federal transportation aid to states this summer.

Besides authorizing specific water projects, Tuesday’s bill makes changes to how future projects are to seek funding. It sets specific time and cost limits for studies on potential projects, eliminates duplicative Army Corps of Engineers reviews and speeds up environmental reviews.

The bill also increases spending from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for improvements to ports and creates a five-year pilot program to provide loans and loan guarantees for various projects.

All four lawmakers who voted against the bill were Republicans: Reps. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, Justin Amash of Michigan, Louie Gohmert of Texas and Matt Salmon of Arizona.

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