President Trump has picked Maj. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon to be the next Army Chief of Engineers and commanding general of the Corps of Engineers, one of the most important infrastructure-related positions in the federal government.

Since June 2018, Spellmon has been the Corps’ deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations. He now will begin the Senate confirmation process. If approved, he would be the 55th Chief of Engineers. The Corps traces its roots back to 1775.

A Senate Armed Services Committee spokesperson confirmed to ENR that the committee had received Spellmon’s nomination, which was sent to the committee on Jan. 9.  The nomination is accompanied by a request to promote Spellmon to the rank of lieutenant general. [View notice of nomination here.]

Spellmon will have a confirmation hearing before Armed Services, which has jurisdiction over the nomination. The Environment and Public Works Committee, which is responsible for Corps civil works policy, also has held hearings for Chief nominees in the past.

If confirmed, Spellmon would succeed Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, whose four-year tour as chief ends on May 19, Semonite told ENR after a House subcommittee hearing on Jan. 9.

Before assuming his current position overseeing civil works and disaster relief activities, Spellmon led the Corps’ wide-ranging Northwestern Division.

The choice of Spellmon didn't come as a surprise to veteran industry sources, who had him on their short list of candidates for the top Corps post.

John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP, says, "He's highly thought of in the stakeholder community, as well as up on the Hill and in the administration."

The American Association of Port Authorities welcomed Spellmon's selection. Jim Walker, AAPA's director of navigation policy and legislation, said via email, "His knowledge of the issues and challenges with the Corps navigation program will enable further improvements to deliver efficient and effective projects for he nation's continued economic growth." Walker is a former top Corps civil works official.

Varied missions

The Corps' infrastructure responsibilities are large and diverse. Its 2020 civil works appropriations total $7.65 billion, including an array of flood protection, port and waterway dredging, environmental restoration and other projects.

Although the Corps civil works program has fared well in the appropriations arena in recent years, winning increases from Congress that exceed  administration requests—sometimes by a wide margin—it still has a backlog of unfunded construction projects.

"The backlog's enormous," says retired Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, Corps commander from 2000 to 2004. In early 2018 the Corps estimated that backlog at $96 billion, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

The Corps also has extensive military construction project responsibilities around the world for the Army and Air Force, Flowers noted in a interview with ENR. Appropriations this year for the Army's core construction program total about $1.2 billion. According to his biography, Spellmon has had a variety of overseas assignments with the Army, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition, the Corps carries out a variety of work for other federal agencies, including relatively recent duties managing construction of major Dept. of Veterans Affairs hospital projects.

Border wall, environmental "pendulum"

One of the Corps' highest-profile tasks is managing construction of the barrier along the U.S. border with Mexico, one of Trump's top priorities. Doyle, a former senior Army civil works official, says, "One of the most delicate issues that he'll need to help the Army continue to try and manage is of course the very obvious disagreement that exists in political circles surrounding funding for construction of a border wall on our southern border."

Published reports indicate that Trump will seek to shift a further $7.2 billion from Dept. of Defense programs for the project. That follows $6.3 billion he transferred from DOD accounts to the wall in fiscal 2019, including $3.6 billion already appropriated for military construction projects.

Doyle adds that if Spellmon is confirmed, "He'll need to deal with that very directly in all likelihood, where as director of civil works he was only peripherally involved in that issue."

Flowers, now a senior adviser with water-resources consulting firm Dawson & Associates, says another challenge for the next chief will be assessing the "pendulum" that swings from a strict environmental emphasis for the Corps to one that encourages development and another pendulum that swings from a slower contracting process to expedited approvals. Those two trends "swing in tandem," Flowers says.

He notes that the emphasis now favors development and speedier contract approval. Flowers adds, "The challenge for the new chief is going to be balancing and figuring out where the pendulum is at and leading the organization in a way that will assure fulfilling its missions, no matter where the pendulum is."