Under the Trump administration's proposed fiscal year 2020 budget for the Army Corps of Engineers, construction dollars would be slashed from the enacted 2019 level, and Corps officials say they are concentrating those funds on projects that can be finished in the near term.

The overall 2020 civil works budget—which would be cut 31%, to $4.8 billion—seeks no money for a long-gestating Corps Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation (WIFIA) Act loan program, but a top civil works official says that program could be launched in 2020.

In a budget briefing for reporters and industry officials on March 12, Corps leaders said the administration’s 2020 civil works proposal would include $2.2 billion for the construction account, down 46% from the 2019 enacted amount, and $1.9 billion for operation and maintenance activities, a 48% cut from this year.

The budget request includes no funding for new construction starts but focuses dollars on projects that can be finished soon, Corps officials said.

Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, Corps deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations, said that the budget reflects “the tough decisions that have to be made to put the nation on a fiscally prudent path.”

But if the past is any guide, congressional appropriators are likely to increase funding for Corps civil works above the president’s request, as they have in each of the past several years.

Mike Toohey, Waterways Council Inc., president and chief executive officer, said in a statement that the budget cuts were “not unexpected, based on past Office of Management and Budget requests from any administration.”

But Toohey added that the fiscal 2020 civil works request “is still very disappointing considering the president’s many positive pronouncements on the importance of infrastructure investments.”

Completing projects

Fleshing out the specifics of the Trump 2020 request, R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said the Corps construction-account proposal has money for 18 projects, of which nine are navigation projects, five for ecosystem restoration and four for flood control.

Four of the construction projects on the list would be “funded to completion,” James added. The largest is the Charleston, S.C., harbor dredging, which would receive $138 million.

The others are Monongahela River locks and dams 2, 3 and 4 in Pennsylvania, which would get $111 million; Melvin Price lock and dam on the Mississippi River at Alton, Ill., ($24 million); and Mud Mountain Dam fish passage in Washington state ($16 million).

In March 2018, the Corps awarded a $113-million contract to Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. for the Mud Mountain facility, which the Corps says would be the largest “trap and haul” passage in the U.S.

James noted that in the 2020 budget, the administration is concentrating on finishing projects that are “in the construction queue.” He said, "That’s why you see no new starts.”

Big backlog

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, Corps commanding general and the Army’s chief of engineers, said that although the 2020 request allows only four projects to be finished, “We want to continue to advocate for those projects that have had substantial investments so we can continue to see those things through.”

Semonite added, "And if Congress is so inclined to be able to give us additional money—as they have for the last six years in a row—we will work with the [assistant] secretary to figure out where does that money go, to hopefully be able to make sure maybe there’s a couple more projects we can get to, if not finish this year, then pretty close.”

Spellmon said the Corps recently updated its its estimate of its civil works construction backlog, to $98 billion.

He said the Corps has been getting about $1 billion per year in appropriations for such construction. Spellmon noted that projects are added and deleted from the backlog but added that at recent funding rates, “It would take us about a hundred years to work our way through that backlog."

Corps and WIFIA

The 2020 budget proposal also requests no funding for the Corps to implement its WIFIA program, which provides low-interest federally subsidized loans for water projects.

WIFIA was authorized under a water resources bill enacted in 2014. But partly because of small amounts of appropriations, implementation by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps has been slow.

It took until April 2018 for EPA to approve its first WIFIA loan. But since then, the agency has accelerated its effort, approving six more WIFIA loans. Its total loan volume to date is $1.9 bilion.

The Corps also is authorized to use WIFIA loans but its effort has lagged, with no loans approved yet.

James says that the Corps has been working with EPA “hand in glove” to launch its own WIFIA program. “We think we will have something finished and ready to go from a Corps perspective in 2020,” he says.