The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has been laying the groundwork for a new Water Resources Development Act, to authorize Corps of Engineers water projects and modify Corps policies. Among the key provisions in a "discussion draft" that Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer has been circulating is one establishing a federal loan program to help fund Corps and Environmental Protection Agency water projects.

The provision is titled the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA. And yes, it's based on the popular TIFIA federal loan program for transportation projects.

WIFIA would be modest in size, compared with the 14-year-old TIFIA. The transportation program—whose full name is Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act— has direct funding of $750 million this year and $1 billion in 2014. Each direct federal TIFIA dollar, which reflects the cost of federal loan subsidies, supports $10 in loan volume. Grants and other funding complete the projects' financial packages.

The envisioned WIFIA would let the Corps and EPA provide loans and loan guarantees for water resources, water supply and wastewater projects.

But it would be much smaller than TIFIA. In Boxer's WRDA draft, WIFIA would get $100 million a year, to be split evenly between the Corps and the EPA. Each of those agencies could provide assistance to no more than 10 projects over the five-year period. "We come in small on this just as a way to see if it works, but we're excited about this concept." the California Democrat said at a Nov. 15 committee hearing. (View Webcast)

Nevertheless, using TIFIA's multiplier effect as a guide, that $100 million a year would translate to about $1 billion annually for water projects, and chip away a bit at the huge backlog of water resource, wastewater and drinking-water projects.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a member of Boxer's committee, on Nov. 13 introduced a stand-alone WIFIA bill. Merkley's proposal is similar to the provision in Boxer's draft, but it applies only to drinking-water and wastewater projects and does not specify funding. On the other hand, Merkley's billdoes not limit the WIFIA program to a fixed number of projects or time frame.

If TIFIA's history is repeated, WIFIA should draw significant bipartisan support—and lots of requests from states and localities for project loans.

Boxer's draft WRDA has other important construction-related provisions, including language to require spending from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to equal the fund's revenue inflow. The goal would be to get more dredging projects under way.

If enacted, that provision would be a major change: In 2011, the harbor fund took in more than $1.4 billion in user fees, but appropriations from the fund were just $823 million, according to the Office of Management and Budget. 

The heart of past WRDAs has been its authorizations for individual lock and dam, dredging, flood control and environmental restoration projects.The last WRDA, which became law in 2007, authorized more than 900 projects.
Boxer said the new draft bill would authorize 18 projects that the Corps has recommended. The text doesn't identify those projects; nor does it spell out how much money it would authorize for them.

Boxer did say one of the 18 projects involves improvements to levees in Sacramento. She said other projects are in Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa and Kentucky. "If we don't act, these projects can't go forward," she said.

Boxer acknowledged that her proposal is "only a first draft" and added,
"The final bill is going to be very different."

The damage Superstorm Sandy inflicted on the coasts of New Jersey, New York and other states could help propel a new WRDA bill. Several committee members mentioned Sandy, notably Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who called for more aid for his state's battered beaches and other infrastructure. (video clip from hearing)

The committee's ranking Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who worked with Boxer to get MAP-21 through the Senate earlier this year, called the hearing "a critical step toward the development of a WRDA bill." He said there are elements of the draft that he likes, other provisions that need improvement and some items he has concerns about.

The bill is a  long way from passage, however. No Senate votes are likely in the rest of the lame-duck session.
But by turning her WRDA ideas and those of her committee colleagues into a draft, Boxer is giving her committee a head start on moving the legislation in the new Congress, which convenes in January.