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America's GPA: D+
Estimated Investment Needed by 2020:
$3.6 Trillion

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Congressional Hearings Focus on Aviation, Flood Control

March 3rd, 2017 | By: Whitford Remer

As the President’s repeated in his address to Congress his pledge to dramatically increase infrastructure spending to the tune of $1 trillion, various Congressional Committees have been holding hearings to explore the need. While the hearings reflect broad and even growing support on Capitol Hill for infrastructure spending, they also illustrate major hurdles, chief among them and one that has bedeviled infrastructure advocates for a very long time, how to pay for it. On the House side, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has begun a series of hearings to highlight the need among specific infrastructure categories. Using the title “Building a 21st Century for America,” the hearings explore the federal role in several infrastructure categories. On March 1st, the Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee looked at the state of the nation’s airports, with a panel of airport executives including Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and the Greater Asheville (NC) Regional Airport Authority. The executives noted different challenges faced by different sized airports and the need for flexibility, both in how they are able to spend grant money received through the Airports Improvement Program (AIP) and the ability to set the appropriate level for the Passenger Facility Charges (PFCs) that airports can charge, which has been capped by Congress at $4.50. During the hearing, full Committee Ranking Democrat Peter DeFazio (D-OR) announced he had joined with Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) in offering legislation to remove the cap on PFCs and permitting airports to set the level as they see fit. The panel also noted that under the new pricing policies instituted by airlines, while the ticket tax that funds the AIP is applied to the basic ticket, additional charges such as baggage fees are not subject to the tax, costing the program millions of dollars. Finally, both members of the Committee and the panelist agreed that the recent pattern of short-term authorizations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its programs has made it hard to make long-term plans and have increased the cost of the capital projects. ASCE strongly agrees with the airport executives and supports increasing funding for the AIP, removing the cap from the PFCs and longer-term authorization for the FAA. Meanwhile in the Senate, the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a hearing titled “Flood Control Infrastructure: Safety Questions Raised by Current Events.” The hearing was prompted in large part by the recent spillway deteriorations and ensuing evacuations around California’s Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the nation. Among the witnesses were Lieutenant General Todd T. Semonite, Commanding General and Chief of Engineers U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Larry Larson, Director Emeritus & Senior Policy Advisor for Association of State Floodplain Manager. General Seminote talked about his agency’s role in providing flood protection infrastructure across the country. Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) pressed the General on the Agency’s benefit-cost analysis formula for selecting projects, which relies, in-part, on property value. Sen. Barrassso, the new Chairman of the Committee emphasized this type of formula pitted urban project against more rural projects in his home state of Wyoming. Larry Larson and several Senators also raised the important point that there are flood control programs authorized by Congress in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 and Water Resources Development Act of 2016 that have not received any federal funding. Larry Larson also told the panel that private funding will not cover the full cost for dam and levee repair. “Our experience shows that financial incentives are very difficult to apply to these projects,” adding that that federal funding would be needed.

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A Big WIIN For Water Resources

December 15th, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10, the U.S. Senate passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which included a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) title by a vote of 78-21. The vote was one of the final acts of the 114th Congress. The House passed the same bill a few days earlier by a vote of 360-61.President Obama is expected to sign the bill in the next few days. This bill had been months—and in some ways years—in the making. Since the beginning WIIN Thank Youof this year, ASCE has been actively working on getting a water resources bill passed, and restoring it to a two-year cycle. In February, ASCE provided Congressional testimony before both the Senate and House on the importance of passing a new water resources bill. The final bill includes several of our priorities, including the creation of a High Hazard Dam Rehabilitation program and other important infrastructure programs, including authorization of 30 new projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. ASCE members sent nearly 5,000 emails to Capitol Hill urging passage during the final days of debate on the bill. Those final few days before the bill’s passage were fraught with consternation as a provision inserted last minute to assist with drought relief to western states rattled environmentalists and the bill’s primary Democratic author, California Senator Barbara Boxer, who worried that water transfers could affect the health of fishery populations. Those concerns did peel off nearly two dozen democratic votes in the Senate, however, the bill ultimately passed with strong bipartisan support. While Congress has vowed to pass a water resources bill every two years (the last one passed in 2014, but before that 2007) the authorization components of the bill still must be funded through annual appropriations. The 114th Congress concluded by passing a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government open and running through April 2017. This sort of stopgap funding measure is not the type of major injections of infrastructure investment necessary to reduce the estimated $1.6 trillion infrastructure funding gap that is expected by 2020.  We are hopeful that the 115th Congress will work diligently to fund infrastructure programs and increase federal appropriations to important programs. In the meantime, thank your Members of Congress who voted for WIIN by sending an email. For more, read Congress Unveils Compromise Water Resources Bill

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Congress Unveils Compromise Water Resources Bill

December 6th, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

Congressional negotiators released a newly rebranded water infrastructure bill this week after months of hashing out differences between their respective Water Resources Development Acts (S.2848 and H.R.5303) that each chamber passed earlier this year. The new bill, dubbed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act or WIIN Act not only includes a traditional Army Corps project authorization title, but also other water infrastructure programs such as aid to Flint, Mich. to assist in lead pipe replacement and provisions to help California with drought relief.  The American Society of Civil Engineers sent letters of support to House and Senate leadership. The compromise bill also includes a high-hazard dam rehabilitation and repair program, which was included in the original Senate version of WRDA that passed by a vote of 95-3. Here a few selected sections to keep an eye on: Title I: Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (Army Corps of Engineers projects) Sec. 1108 Funding for Harbor Maintenance Programs Changes the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) formula established in WRRDA 2014 to ensure distribution of funds will be 3% higher than the total resources from the year before.  This ensures that distributions continue to increase, year-over-year, until 100% distribution of the funds in the HMTF are used for their intended purpose. Sec. 1111 Harbor Deepening Allows for a 75 percent federal share on harbor deepening projects up to 50 feet. With new Post-Panamax size ships entering U.S. ports, this provision allows a 75 percent federal cost-share for new construction (not just maintenance) up to 50 feet deep. The federal share was previously 50 percent for new construction deeper than 45 feet. Sec. 1122 Beneficial Use of Dredged Material Establishes a new pilot program for the beneficial use of dredge material. The pilot program allows the Army Corps to undertake 10 projects that would use dredge material for reducing storm surge, promote public safety, enhance aquatic habitat and stabilize shorelines. Importantly, the extra cost of using the material will be covered by the Corps, rather than the non-federal sponsor. Sec. 1184 Considerations of Measures Requires the Corps, in consultation with a non-federal project sponsor to consider the use of natural and nature based features for costal water resources projects. Title II: Water and Wastewater Act of 2016 Sec. 2101 Sense of Congress on Appropriation of Levels While it’s not compulsory, this section provides language that supports a theme President-Elect Trump supports: increasing appropriations to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Sec. 2201 Drinking Water Infrastructure Provides funds to assist Flint, Michigan to replace lead service lines. Sec. 2202 Sense of Congress Provides $20,000,000 for Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. Title III: Natural Resources Sec. 3801 Reauthorization of Water Desalination Act of 1996 Reauthorizes $40 million for research, design and construction program to advance desalination. Sec. 5006 Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dams Establishes a high hazard dam repair, rehabilitation or removal grant program under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Authorized at $445 million over ten years. Stay tuned to the @ASCEgovrel Twitter for progress on the bill in the coming days.

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Stakeholders Weighing on Final Water Resources Package

November 3rd, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

As the last remaining standalone infrastructure bill with a chance of becoming law this year, stakeholders for the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 are beginning to double down on their priorities by weighing in with the leaders charged with reconciling difference in the House passed and Senate passed versions. The House and Senate both passed WRDA bills before heading home for the campaign season. Here are a few letters infrastructure stakeholders have sent to Committee Leadership this week to help get this bill cross the finish line and become law   Full Use of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Groups such as the National Manufacturing Association, American Society of Civil Engineers and American Association of Port Authorities signed a letter to advance language in Sec. 2003 of S.2848, which would ensure that the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is allocated the fullest extent practicable each year. Drinking Water and Clean Water Organizations representing the nation’s drinking water and wastewater utilities, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, National Association of Clean Water Administrators and Association for Metropolitan Water Agencies urged congress to adopt Title VII of S.2848, which would provide important policy changes and authorizations to improve our nations drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Natural and Nature Based Features Conservation groups, such as the Nature Conservancy and engineering groups like CH2M and the American Society of Civil Engineers teamed up to support language in the House WRDA bill that promote the use of natural and nature based features in water resources development projects. In addition to stakeholder letters, several Senators sent a letter to the chairs and ranking members of the Environment & Public Works Committee and the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee encouraging inclusion of the dam rehabilitation provision. The House and Senate have just a few short weeks to reconcile the differences in their respective WRDA bills, but a 95-3 vote in the Senate and 399-25 vote in the House, we’re confident Congress will send a new WRDA bill to President Obama before the end of the year.

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WRDA Passes The House

September 29th, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5303 the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 late yesterday afternoon by a vote of 399-25. The $11.5 billion bill authorizes over three dozen Army Corps of Engineers flood control, navigation and ecosystem restoration projects and studies across the country.  In addition to the base text reported out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee nearly 40 amendments were added to the bill on the House floor. The final amendment to the bill authorizes $170 million in aid for Flint, Michigan to assist with the drinking water crisis. For months Congress has been struggling with how to respond to the drinking water issue in Flint. At one point earlier this week, democrats were prepared to shut down the government unless the Flint issue was resolved. Around midnight Tuesday, leaders agreed to address Flint in the House WRDA bill, which cleared the way for both short term government spending bill and gave WRDA the votes necessary to pass. Prior to the Flint amendment, democrats threatened to block the bill because another provision requiring funds in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) to be spent every year was stripped out last minute. Democrats led by T&I Ranking Member Peter Defazio (D-OR) wanted to ensure the HMTF was used to the fullest extent each year, whereas now its funds are subject to an unpredictable annual appropriations process. The House WRDA bill is much narrower than the version passed in the Senate two weeks ago by a vote of 95-3. The Senate bill includes a similar list of Army Corps projects, $220 million for Flint and an entirely separate title dedicated to improving the nations drinking water and clean water infrastructure. The additional water infrastructure programs will be the subject of intense the negotiations between Senate and House staff while Congress is home campaigning prior to the November election. When congress returns for the lame duck session in December, the hope is there will be agreement on a WRDA bill that both chambers can easily pass and send to the President’s desk. Congress has committed to passing a WRDA bill every two years, with the last one passing in 2014. Prior to that WRDA bills passed in 2007 and 2000.

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Senate Passes Major Water Resources Bill; All Eyes Turn to House

September 15th, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

WRDA Senate vote countIn a major victory for ASCE and other infrastructure stakeholders (i.e. everyone!) the Senate on Thursday passed S.2848 the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 in a vote of 95-3. In many ways, passing the bill should be a no-brainer, as WRDA will increase America’s competitiveness by preparing ports and harbors for post-Panama Canal renovation sized ships, establish a long-awaited dam rehabilitation program and authorize major ecosystem restoration projects across dozens of states. However, in an era of tightening federal budgets, partisan deadlock and election-year rhetoric many are calling WRDA’s passage no small miracle. It’s difficult to find any bill pass with such favorability, let alone a multibillion dollar one. WRDA is now the legislative envy of other bill in town—bringing together two of the Senate’s arguably most polar opposite personalities—Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who’ve made the case on just how important flood control, navigation and ecosystem restoration are to communities around the county. It also helps that the Congressional Budget Office predicts that while the bill “costs” nearly $10 billion, it will actually save the U.S. taxpayer $6 million dollars over ten years. Presumably, that has something to do with risk mitigation and maintenance activities the bill provides, allowing engineers to get ahead of problems before unscheduled delays or infrastructure failures stack up. Included in the final bill are several programs ASCE has worked for decades to pass. A dam rehabilitation program housed under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will allow nonfederal dam owners to apply for small grants to rehabilitate, remove or repair high hazard dams. There’s also several provisions to assist communities in upgrading their drinking water and wastewater systems, including assistance for Flint, Michigan to help recover from the lead contamination the community suffered last year. The legislation authorizes 27 new projects at the Army Corps of Engineers, 30 new feasibility studies and modernizes several new projects already underway. In April the House passed a much narrower bill, mostly focused on Army Corps Chief’s Reports and feasibility studies. The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee held an updated hearing on their bill Thursday and are expected to begin full consideration of the bill next week and pass a bill before returning home in October. The hope is while Congress is home for election campaigning, the difference of the bills can be reconciled and prepared for quick passage in December.

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Updates to the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard

August 31st, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

The Federal Emergency Managed Agency (FEMA) recently released a proposed rule the could transform how the federal government funds infrastructure built in flood prone areas. The draft rule, formally known as Updates to Floodplain Management and Protection of Wetlands Regulations To Implement Executive Order 13690 and the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard was published for public comment on August 28, 2016. Under the proposed rule, FEMA Federally Funded Projects, which are actions involving the use of FEMA funds for new construction, substantial improvement, or to address substantial damage to a structure or facility would be subject to new elevation requirements. As a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed noted it “[w]hether you are an investor assessing the $2 trillion in bonds that Moody’s found carry elevated near-term climate risk, one of the nearly two million U.S. homeowners facing significant risk from climate-related flooding, or a U.S. taxpayer staring at $360 billion in direct government costs from extreme weather over the past decade—these threats are looming, large and increasing.” In light of these risks, the Obama Administration updated federal flood risk policy for the first time in nearly 40 years by proposing a new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), which orders agencies to review how they spend federal money in flood plains. Part of the directive requires that new construction or substantial improvements made to infrastructure backed with federal money be designed and elevated using one of three methods: (1) Climate-Informed Science Approach (CISA): Utilizing the best-available, actionable hydrologic and hydraulic data and methods that integrate current and future changes in flooding based on climate science; (2) Freeboard Value Approach (FVA): Freeboard (base flood elevation + X, where X is 3 feet for critical actions and 2 feet for other actions); (3) 0.2 percent annual chance Flood Approach (0.2PFA): 0.2 percent annual chance flood (also known as the 500-year flood); or (4) the elevation and flood hazard area that result from using any other method identified in an update to the FFRMS. Agencies that have major infrastructure missions (e.g. FEMA, the Department of Transportation, the U.S.  Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Housing and Urban Development) will be closely watched to see which methods or methods they adopt. The first agency to propose their method (via rulemaking) was FEMA, which adopted the Freeboard Value Approach as the baseline approach for both critical and non-critical FEMA Federally Funded Projects. For FEMA investments that are critical actions, the agency would use the Freeboard Value Approach to establish the minimum elevation and allow optional use of the Climate-Informed Science Approach if the elevation is higher than the Freeboard Value Approach. While the FFRMS marks a significant change in federal policy relating to flood resilient design and risk mitigation, the truth is stronger building codes have been adopted by states and local government for decades and the federal government is just now playing catch up. According to FEMA, 22 States and 596 localities have adopted freeboard requirements ranging from 1 to 3 feet. Finally, FEMA expects the expected increase in costs for the new elevation requirement to save both time and money in disaster recovery. Comments on the FEMA rule are being accepted through the federal register through October 21, 2016 using Freeboard Value Approach to establish the elevation and FFRMS floodplain for FEMA Federally Funded Projects that are non-critical actions

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New Report Highlights Limitations of National Levee Safety Initiative

August 17th, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a new report surveying the progress the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have made carrying out the National Levee Safety Program. The conclusion: the Agencies “have made little progress in implementing key national levee-safety-related activities required in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014.” The reason: lack of funding and higher priorities for other programs. Congress passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA) in June 2014.  WRRDA requires the Corps and FEMA to manage national levee-safety-related activities, including establishing voluntary national levee-safety guidelines and providing financial and technical assistance to nonfederal stakeholders that take actions to promote levee safety. WRRDA authorizes $395 million to support levee safety initiatives over five years, yet not a single dollar has been appropriated for the program, nor has the program been prioritized in the President’s Budget Request in the last three fiscal year cycles. As flooding continues to threaten communities across the county, establishing a national levee safety program could provide much needed coordination, raise risk awareness, provide funding for inventory/inspection and lay the groundwork for a levee rehabilitation and repair program. As the proverbial saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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White House Holds Summit to Discuss Disaster Financing and Resilient Recovery

August 3rd, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

On Wednesday the White House hosted a Forum on Smart Finance for Disaster Resilience to “highlight innovations in disaster mitigation and resilience finance, including emerging public-private collaborations with banking, insurance, and financial services sectors.” According to NOAA the U.S. has sustained 196 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of these 196 events exceeds $1.1 trillion. Flooding alone caused for $260 billion in damages from 1980 to 2013. Just this week a 1-in-1,000-year flood event caused significant damage and tragic loss of life in the historic town of Ellicott City, Maryland. West Virginia, Texas, Illinois and South Carolina have all experienced significant flood events in the last three years. As the federal government, insurance companies and local recovery programs assist these communities, it’s important to consider tools that can be used to help reduce similar losses in the future. Resilient design standards, changes to insurance policies, and green bonds were all topics of discussion at the White House event. The idea of resilient recovery has become more common following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when high wind and coastal storm surge devastated the Northeast at a cost of $67 billion. Redefining the role of the federal government in disaster recovery, properly balancing risk for private insurers and encouraging home owners to strengthen their homes (see the FORTIFIED Program) are all good starts. Key to ensuring that infrastructure is built safe and strong lies with the engineers who design it. However, the engineering profession has for too long relied on historical data for its design parameters, when a paradigm shift is needed to design for future conditions. With more than 50 percent of Americans living in coastal counties, key infrastructure (e.g. ports and energy facilities) and evacuation routes are increasingly vulnerable to impacts like higher sea levels, storm surges, and flooding. Inland communities face similar problems of riverine flooding, drought and forest fire. While there’s no one right answer, the White House forum demonstrated it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. With the right policies and building codes in place, combined with emergency planning, people can live and safely and comfortably in their community. The Department of Housing and Urban Development offers resources to help guide communities in the financing of high performing infrastructure.  The days of free unhinged disaster response funds are likely behind us, and requiring communities to build stronger will keep us safer and ultimately save money and lives in the long run.

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

July 7th, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

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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