It will be a while before House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders draft their version of a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), but they are providing more signals about what their priorities are.

Accelerating Army Corps of Engineers project reviews is high on their list, as a June 5 hearing of "T&I’s” water resources and environment subcommittee made clear. (Link to Webcast, statements, testimony)

The hearing focused on the lengthy process that culminates in an Army Chief of Engineers’ report recommending a civil-works project to Senate and House committees. For many projects, a completed “chief’s report” is a critical step before Congress authorizes construction funding.

Chief’s reports have moved into the spotlight because the WRDA that the Senate passed on May 15 authorizes any new projects for which chief’s reports have been completed since the last WRDA became law, in November 2007. The Senate bill also has provisions aimed at moving projects faster through the approval process. (ENR story)

At the T&I hearing, lawmakers from both parties agreed that the review process is too long. Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said it used to take the Corps 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) cited the Sabine-Neches Waterway project in Texas and Louisiana. He said that project's study was authorized in 1997 but the chief's report wasn't sent to Congress until 2011.

“We are literally studying infrastructure projects to death,” Gibbs said, but he added that “this is not solely the fault of the Corps of Engineers. He noted that the Corps must follow the requirements contained in a long list of federal statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act and a series of past WRDA’s.

Congress bears part of the blame, said the subcommittee’s top Democrat, Tim Bishop (N.Y.). He said, “We have met the enemy and it is us,” said Bishop, paraphrasing the famous line from the old “Pogo” comic strip.

Bishop said there have been various technical, political, appropriations and budget-office “overlays” that affect the project process. He added, “The end result is a mind-numbing, convoluted, multi-layered flow chart that now includes a minimum of 21 major steps along the journey.”

The hearing’s main witness, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, the Corps’ deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations, said the Corps is making changes in its planning process. It has set a goal to complete most of its feasibility studies—which precede chief’s reports—within three years, at a cost of $3 million or less, and with coordination by three Corps organizational levels—district, division and headquarters.

Walsh said the Corps expects to have the “3x3x3“ system “fully implemented” in fiscal 2014.

The Senate bill's architects—Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and the committee's top Republican, David Vitter (La.)—used the chief's report standard as a way to get projects authorized without violating the congressional prohibition on earmarked funding. They didn't list projects by name, because they felt that would run afoul of the earmark ban.

The Senate bill would authorize the 27 post-WRDA 2007 projects that have chief's reports to date, including Sabine-Neches. The list will get longer. The Corps says it is aiming to deliver chief's reports for 14 other projects by the end of the year.

Shuster has said he's concerned about the Senate's language, which in his view could amount to giving up congressional authority to the Executive Branch. But he hasn't said yet how he plans to deal with project authorizations in his committee's upcoming WRDA.