by Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
May 9, 2013
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate is expected to pass a bill early next week that would green light water projects across the country, including a massive flood control system in the Fargo-Moorhead region. The bill could also fund a number of other projects in Minnesota.
The Red River crested last week at a much lower level than first expected. The purchase and removal of many flood-prone homes also made this year's flood fight easier than in the past. Still, residents of the area want something more permanent than sandbags to control flooding.
The Water Resources Development Act, currently under debate in the Senate, would do just that.
"There are many things in this bill that are important to Minnesota," said Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
It would give the go-ahead for the Army Corps of Engineers to begin work on the $1.8 billion Red River diversion project and scores of other water projects nationwide.
The Corps estimates the diversion could significantly reduce major flooding in the Fargo-Moorhead area. North Dakota will pick up more than half the cost of the project and the federal government will pay for much of the rest.
BILL HAS SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Unlike most legislation these days, this water bill appears set to sail through the frequently deadlocked Senate. One reason: there's something for everyone in it.
Josh Sewell, a senior policy analyst with the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said this kind of legislation is more or less filled with earmarks even though Congress has officially banned that practice.
"I think these water bills are one of the last hurdles to have the country move beyond earmarks," Sewell said.
The bill authorizes major projects in California and Louisiana, the states that are home to the two Democratic and Republican senators who are leading the charge for the water legislation.
Sewell said the Corps of Engineers is routinely over budget and behind schedule. Authorizing more projects could overburden an already stretched agency, Sewell said, and slow the Fargo-Moorhead project.
"But that's basically the minimum it's going to cost, I can guarantee you that," Sewell said.
The Senate water bill would also free up money for Duluth to deepen its port. Minnesota's aging locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River could also see money as a result of the legislation.
BARGE INDUSTRY WANTS TO PAY MORE TAXES
The bill's backers frequently bring up the issue of aging infrastructure.
"Lord knows what would happen if a major lock failed and what it would do to our national economy," said Mike Toohey, president of the barge industry's trade group The Waterways Council.
The cost of building locks and dams is funded by a tax on barge fuel that hasn't been raised since the 1990s. The money goes into a trust fund, but like many of the transportation trust funds, it's basically broke because of cost overruns on Army Corps construction projects.
Toohey said the industry supports increasing the fuel tax, something he said many members of Congress have trouble understanding.
"Well, they certainly react to it with amusement and they're sometimes befuddled by this notion that we're willing to pay more," Toohey said.
That proposed tax increase hasn't yet been added to the bill.
Klobuchar said even with the industry's support, selling any kind of tax increase is hard in this Congress.
"Even when industry is paying for stuff, some of the more conservative Republicans who have signed certain pledges don't like it," Klobuchar said.
Still, Sewell with Taxpayers for Common Sense said the proposed fuel tax increase would only restore the tax to level it was 20 years ago once it's adjusted for inflation.
Moreover, the tax money pays only for construction, not maintenance. Sewell said that means the country's waterways would actually maintain a very privileged position relative to other modes of transportation.
"The inland waterways system is the most highly subsidized transportation system in the country," Sewell said. "By far."
The Senate's expected to pass the bill early next week but it's a different story in the House. The Republican majority there isn't likely to consider this bill before fall at the earliest.