OPINION | Water bill vote shows faith in government solutions

In a lurch toward sweet bipartisanship, the U.S. House of Representatives, AKA Shutdown Central, last week approved the long-delayed Water Resources Reform and Development Act by an astounding vote of 417 to 3.

While the $8.2 billion authorization bill (including $12 billion in deauthorization of old, inactive projects) is tiny potatoes compared with, say, the $500 billion farm and food aid measure being debated this week, its overwhelming support shows that Congress isn't totally dysfunctional when it comes to transportation and infrastructure policy.

The bill still needs to be reconciled with a $12 billion Senate version, which passed 83-10, but some transportation advocates saw the landslide House roll call as a hopeful omen for continued federal support of roads, bridges, transit, biking and walking that runs out again next October.

"How many other substantive bills passed Congress with those bipartisan majorities this year?" blogged Larry Ehl of Transportation Issues Daily. "Heck, how many substantive bills have passed at all?"

Ehl said the House reached near-unanimity despite the opposition of both conservative budget hawks and progressives upset over streamlining some environmental reviews. "Virtually every liberal Democrat and every Tea Party Republican voted for the bill," he wrote. "In fact, at least one prominent Tea Party member spoke on the floor ... citing Congress's constitutional role in providing infrastructure."

Interest-group backing came from "a coalition of industries and business associations, and communities who depend on rivers, ports and locks across the country for commerce and trade," Ehl noted.

Minnesota is represented in all those categories; we also stand to benefit from flood-control funding in the bill, including $800 million for the Fargo-Moorhead area. Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, however, cast one of the three nays -- in protest of the bill's omission of a stalled flood-control project in Roseau. He's hoping it will be restored in House-Senate conference negotiations, said spokeswoman Allison Myhre.

The bill is a mixed bag for Minnesota in several other respects, according to Dick Lambert, waterways coordinator in the state Department of Transportation.

"It's great that they're putting money into infrastructure," he said in an interview. "The shipping industry has been asking for a long time to raise their fuel fees from the 20 cents a gallon set in 1995 for waterways maintenance." Stepped-up dredging and lock improvements will ensure transport to market for Minnesota grain and taconite, as well as western coal that ships through Minnesota ports, he added.

On the other hand, the bill also sets the stage for closure within a year of the Upper St. Anthony lock on the Mississippi River at downtown Minneapolis if it does not regain a level of commercial traffic it hasn't seen in at least a decade, Lambert said. Closure would greatly increase truck traffic on Interstate Hwy. 94 serving concrete and scrap metal operations in north Minneapolis, as well as shutting down access to recreational and excursion boating, he said.

Still, closing the lock, which has operated since 1963, has broad official support in Minnesota for two reasons: 1) Minneapolis' hopes to redevelop into parks and housing its gritty industrial riverfront north of downtown, including a city-owned port terminal. 2) The threat of Asian carp migrating upriver and destroying the sport fisheries of northern Minnesota. Blocking all boat traffic from south of the lock is considered the surest way to prevent this.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis argues that the relatively small cost of shifting industrial cargo from barges to trucks is greatly outweighed by the billions fishing tourism brings the state. Lambert said riverfront industries have vowed to stay put regardless of the lock's future, but they might eventually find relocation downriver in their economic interest.

Transportation changes nearly always stir controversy, however, and on balance the water resources bill is a strong step forward. "It will help families and businesses save money while also fortifying critical dams, levees, ports and waterways," the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers commented on a Washington blog.

Benefits will be even greater if the bill's harmony extends to the rest of federal transportation policy and finance, an area that hadn't suffered partisan gridlock until recently. Transportation Issue Daily's Ehl said that will happen if several features of the water bill are imported into future deliberations: persuading conservatives that Congress has a constitutional duty to provide public infrastructure, reaching compromise on regulatory reforms that attract conservative votes but don't drive away progressives, and mounting strong advocacy from business and local communities.

"Every district in the nation needs sound infrastructure and policies, programs and funding that help deliver essential maintenance, modernization of roads and bridges, waterways and ports, airports and air traffic control systems," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Janet Kavinoky blogged after the House vote. "Leaders in the House and Senate are both ready to get started on uniting two very good bipartisan bills and there is nothing irreconcilable. We are confident that the outcome of the conference committee will be a strong new water resources bill that helps boost economic growth and job creation."

If only all our policymakers could keep their eyes on that prize with real, proven measures where government is the solution.

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Conrad deFiebre's picture
Conrad deFiebre

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020.