Brownwater News, August 2015

Congress keeps highway bill alive until Oct. 29

A bill that extends highway construction funding through Oct. 29, three months after the government’s highway spending authority was scheduled to expire, was signed July 31 by President Obama.

The House passed the measure, H.R. 3236, on July 29 by a vote of 385-34. The Senate passed it July 30 by a vote of 91-4.

The short-term bill extends authority and funding for the Department of Transportation’s surface transportation programs and transfers $8.1 billion from the Treasury's General Fund to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). In early August the HTF balance was forecast to drop below a $4 billion cushion necessary to prevent disruptions in payments to states.

Before leaving Washington for its August recess, the Senate also voted 65-34 in favor of a $350 billion, six-year highway bill that would make changes to highway, transit, railroad and auto safety programs. However, sponsors only found enough money to pay for the first three years of the bill.

The Senate’s six-year highway bill, which the House is expected to work with in putting together a new six-year measure sometime in the fall, shores up the HTF for three years by using about $45 billion in revenue increases and making spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. The largest source of funds is $16 billion that would be saved by reducing the dividend rate the government pays to large banks.

H.R. 3236 capped highway construction spending this fiscal year at $40.3 billion, including $3.2 billion for Oct. 1 through Oct. 29.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said July 21 that a bipartisan agreement had been reached on a six-year highway bill that would increase the money that Washington distributes to state and local transportation officials by $2 billion, for a total of $52 billion.

McConnell’s announcement came six days after the House voted to approve $8 billion to extend the life of the current highway bill, which was scheduled to expire July 31.

McConnell said that funds to cover the first three years of the proposed legislation would come from various sources, including the reduction of the mandated dividend for large banks and the sale of 101 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Eventually, after three years of the Senate bill, Congress would again face the prospect of ignoring or increasing the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax, which now contributes about $34 billion a year for highway and transit work.

EPA, Corps define wetlands as U.S. waters

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers have published a final rule that the agencies said defines the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act.

The final rule, which will become effective Aug. 28, covers 75 pages in the Federal Register of June 29. The EPA and the Corps said the rule does not establish any regulatory requirement. Instead, they said, it is a “definitional rule” that clarifies the scope of “waters of the United States” consistent with the Clean Water Act, Supreme Court precedent and science.

Relationships that state, tribal and local governments have with the federal government “are not altered by the final rule,” the Corps and EPA said.

The agencies said that existing regulations define “waters of the United States” as traditional navigable waters and several other “waters,” including adjacent wetlands. They said that the Supreme Court has deferred to the Corps’ ecological judgment that adjacent wetlands are “inseparably bound up” with the waters to which they are adjacent, and upheld the inclusion of adjacent wetlands in the regulatory definition of “waters of the United States.”

In addition, the EPA and Corps said that the Supreme Court has “consistently agreed” that the geographic scope of the Clean Water Act reaches beyond waters that are navigable. Science and practical experience, they said, demonstrate that upstream waters, including headwaters and wetlands, “significantly affect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of downstream waters by playing a crucial role in controlling sediment, filtering pollutants, reducing flooding, providing habitat for fish and other aquatic wildlife, and many other vital chemical, physical and biological processes.”

For more information, contact Donna Downing at (202) 566-2428.

CBP believes secure maritime border is ‘achievable’

Randolph Alles, assistant commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Air and Marine (OAM), told lawmakers July 14 that he believes that “a secure maritime border is achievable.”

Testifying at a hearing of the House Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, Alles said his office is focusing its strategic planning efforts “to this end, with emphasis on domain awareness, investigations, enhanced interdiction capabilities and (a) networked approach to coordination with our partners.”

Discussing his office’s effort to accomplish its maritime law enforcement mission, Alles said OAM's assets are tailored to the conditions of the threat environment in which the office operates.

OAM has honed its maritime border security response capability around rapid and effective interception, pursuit and interdiction of inbound suspect vessels, Alles said. OAM also specializes in the installation of covert trackers aboard suspect vessels, and periodically augments vessel crews from investigative partner agencies when needed.

MarAd to amend Maritime Security Program

The Maritime Administration (MarAd) has invited public comments on proposed changes to the Maritime Security Act of 2003.

The proposed revisions change vessel eligibility rules for participating in the Maritime Security Program (MSP), authorize the extension of current MSP operating agreements, establish a new procedure for the award of new MSP operating agreements, extend the MSP through fiscal year 2025, update the operating agreement payments and schedule of payments, and eliminate the Maintenance and Repair Pilot Program.

MarAd said comments must be received by Oct. 5. However, comments received after that date will be considered to the extent practicable. For instructions on submitting comments, see the Federal Register, Aug. 5, page 46527.

For more information, contact William G. Kurfehs at (202) 366-2318.

TIGER grant applicants seek $9.8 billion

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced July 30 that applications to the Department of Transportation for its seventh round of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants totaled $9.8 billion.

Foxx said the applications were almost 20 times the $500 million set aside for the TIGER program, “demonstrating the continued need for transportation investment nationwide.” He said the demand for infrastructure investments from across the nation, and for all types of transportation projects, “has been overwhelming.”

Of the 625 applications received this year, Foxx said 6 percent of them were for port projects. Most of the applications, 60 percent, were for road projects. The department received 565 applications in 2014, when it awarded $584 million to help fund 72 transportation projects.

Earlier this year, the department reintroduced the Grow America Act, a surface reauthorization bill that would provide $7.5 billion over six years for the TIGER grant program.

New postage stamp marks Coast Guard's 225th anniversary

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft and Postmaster General Megan Brennan joined in celebrating the Coast Guard’s 225th anniversary Aug. 4 at the Guard’s Douglas A. Munro Headquarters in Washington.

The Postal Service helped celebrate the occasion by creating a Forever stamp to honor the Coast Guard’s role in protecting the security of the nation and advancing vital U.S. maritime interests. The stamp shows two icons of the Coast Guard: the cutter Eagle, a three-masted sailing ship known as “America’s Tall Ship,” and an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter, one of the Coast Guard’s rescue aircraft. Aviation artist William Phillips of Ashland, Ore., painted the image with oil and Masonite.

Corps’ FY 2016 budget awaits Senate approval

The Waterways Council Inc.’s July 15 “Capitol Currents” notes that while the U.S. House has passed the Army Corps of Engineers’ fiscal year 2016 funding bill, the Senate has yet to act on its version.

The House bill calls for an appropriation of $5.6 billion for the Corps’ civil works program in FY 2016.  The Senate bill recommends $5.5 billion. Both bills would appropriate $1.6 billion for construction. Operations and maintenance would receive $3.1 billion from the House and $2.9 billion from the Senate. Both versions include $340 million as full use of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund in FY 2016.

Writing in the same newsletter, Matthew D. Lowe, Corps project manager in Louisville, Ky., said the Olmsted Locks and Dam project continues on pace to be operational by October 2018, almost two years earlier than forecast by the Corps three years ago. Lowe also said that the project remains within its $3.1 billion fully funded authorization.

Supreme Court curbs EPA emissions regulations

The Supreme Court has pushed back against the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas emissions rules.

The Waterways Council Inc. said that a recent court decision limited the Obama administration’s requirement that companies expanding or building new industrial facilities that could increase pollution must find ways to reduce carbon emissions through a permitting process. The high court said that EPA lacks authority to force companies to do so.

Quoting news reports, the council said the court decision allows the EPA to continue to require permits for greenhouse gas emissions for those facilities that already have to obtain permits because they emit other pollutants that EPA has long regulated. But Justice Antonin Scalia said the EPA could not require a permit solely on the basis of greenhouse gas emissions.

By Professional Mariner Staff