Courtesy of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
Gibbs, House water-resources and environment subcommittee chairman, said, "We are studying infrastructure projects to death."

As House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders plan their version of a Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, it's clear they want the bill to include provisions to accelerate Army Corps of Engineers civil-works project reviews. The WRDA the Senate passed on May 15 already includes language that aims to move projects faster through reviews.

A June 5 hearing of the House panel's water-resources and environment subcommittee focused on the long process that culminates in a chief of engineers' report recommending a project to Senate and House committees. "Chief's reports" are critical milestones toward having construction funds authorized for projects.

Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said the Corps used to take three to five years to finish a project study, but now "10, 12 or even 15 years" is normal. Subcommittee Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) added, "We are studying infrastructure projects to death." That's not completely the Corps' fault, he said, noting that it must follow requirements of many laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and past WRDAs.

Congress bears some blame, said top subcommittee Democrat Tim Bishop (N.Y.). "We have met the enemy, and it is us," he said. After technical, political, appropriations and budget-office input on projects, "the end result is a mind-numbing, convoluted, multilayered flow chart that now includes a minimum of 21 major steps along the journey," he said.

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations, said the Corps is making changes. He said the target is to finish most project feasibility studies, which precede chief's reports, in three years, for $3 million or less and coordination with three management levels. He said the Corps expects to have this "3x3x3" system "fully implemented" in fiscal 2014.

Chief's reports are in the spotlight because of the Senate WRDA. That bill doesn't list the projects it authorizes, apparently because its architects—Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and the panel's top Republican, David Vitter (La.)—felt that would violate the congressional earmark ban.

Instead, the Senate-passed bill authorizes any project that has had a completed chief's report since November 2007, when the last WRDA became law. There are 27 such projects to date. The Corps is aiming to deliver chief's reports for 14 others by the end of December.

Shuster is seeking a different approach. At a transportation industry meeting on June 5, he said, "We've got to figure out a way to make sure we do a WRDA bill and not cede our constitutional congressional authority to the executive branch, because I'm not willing to cede one more inch of that authority."