After pushing the MAP-21 highway and transit bill through to enactment in early July, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer now wants to get another key infrastructure measure moving: a new water projects bill.

Congress will be out of session until after the Nov. 6 elections, but the California Democrat says that in the meantime, she plans to draw up a draft of a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and circulate it to others on the  "EPW" committee. The WRDA bill would authorize funds for Army Corps of Engineers locks and dams, harbor dredging and environmental restoration projects.

Engineering, port, labor union and barge line groups agree that waterway and port infrastructure needs are large. Boxer and her colleagues say a new water resources bill is overdue. The last one became law in November 2007. 

Boxer said at a Sept. 20 EPW hearing on WRDA that she hopes to have the panel's leaders agree on a final draft and have the committee vote on it during the post-election lame duck session.

"There's no reason we can't get a WRDA bill done," she says.

Boxer says one thing that has made passing a new WRDA bill difficult is opposition on Capitol Hill and from the White House to earmarks. Boxer says she supports earmarks, contending that if Congress stops setting aside funds for specific projects, whatever administration is in the White House will do it. She also says senators know their states and what projects they need.

Earmarked projects have helped fuel passage of past WRDA bills.

Although the EPW hearing took place amid a swirl of Hill activity as lawmakers neared the end of their pre-election session, several committee members made time to sit in for a while, talking about the importance of doing a WRDA bill and mentioning specific projects in their states.

Officials from the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Association of Port Authorities, Waterways Council Inc., International Union of Operating Engineers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce all testified about the need  for more spending on locks and dams and port improvements and pledged to support Boxer’s push for a new WRDA.

As other veteran Corps-watchers from industry and the environmental sector looked on, some witnesses made a pitch for spending down the balance in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund by boosting spending on dredging projects. The trust fund’s estimated 2012 balance was $7.1 billion. They got good news from Boxer, who said she supports spending down the trust fund surplus.

Sen. David Vitter (La.), the top Republican on the EPW panel’s transportation and infrastructure subcommittee, said his biggest goal in the upcoming WRDA bill is to change in how the Corps process for dealing with civil works projects. Vitter called the Corps “a broken bureaucracy.”

(The Corps did not testify at the hearing, but its new Chief, Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, has said he plans to change the organization's planning process for civil works projects.)

Vitter said he would like to give states more responsibility for carrying out water projects, taking on a role similar to the one they play in federal-aid highway construction. Vitter says such a shift would get water projects done much faster and at lower cost.