The Senate is poised to vote today to allow construction on locks, dams, ports and other water resources to move forward after a six-year hiatus caused by a lack of federal authorization.
But first they'll have to get through two pro-gun amendments put forward by Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, who saw an opportunity to insert controversial measures into a bill that has bipartisan support.
Co-sponsor Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., appeared indignant after Mr. Coburn filed his amendments, which would create a registry of guns owned by the federal government and allow firearms to be carried in outdoor recreation areas maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"We're on a water infrastructure bill that deals with building absolutely necessary flood control projects and making sure our commerce can move through our ports and that we have money to deepen the channels and make sure that our ports are working and the first two Republican amendments are about guns," Ms. Boxer said in a floor speech Tuesday night.
Still, she said she was encouraged that the bill is making progress.
It's the first time in six years that reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act -- known as WRDA -- has even made it as far as a floor vote.
Even if it passes, it's unlikely the House will take it up. That chamber is working on its own version. Leaders are expected to hash out their differences later and vote on legislation that can pass both chambers.
Sponsored by Ms. Boxer and David Vitter, R-La., the Senate version would authorize the Army Corp of Engineers to construct water projects that mitigate storm damage, restore ecosystems, reduce erosion and maintain waterways.
For the Pittsburgh region, approval means funding to improve deteriorating locks and dams on the Monongahela River.
Nearly everyone in Congress agrees that the infrastructure needs significant work. The sticking points are how to pay for it, how to hold the Corps accountable for spending that could reach $12.2 billion over the next decade, and how to keep from opening the floodgates to the kinds of pork barrel projects that the 2010 earmark ban was meant to eliminate.
"The current business model for modernizing the nation's locks and dams is seriously broken and must be reformed," Peter Stephaic, chairman of Cambell Transportation in Houston, Pa., told a House committee during a recent hearing in Washington. "We seem to have lost the ability we once had to plan and construct inland waterways."
The Boxer-Vitter bill would give the Corps of Engineers power to decide which projects to fund. That's a power traditionally reserved for Congress.
Critics say the bill allows lawmakers to abdicate their responsibility to make decisions about how to spend tax dollars. A coalition of eight conservative groups including Club for Growth and Taxpayers for Common Sense expressed their concerns in a letter to senators last month.
"While we appreciate the effort to avoid earmarks for new project authorizations, we believe the response should not be to just approve whatever the administration recommends but to demand projects meet certain enhanced cost-benefit criteria, subject them to prioritization and to limit the number of projects," they wrote.
Supporters, meanwhile, say the bill would give the Corps more flexibility to fix projects faster.
The Boxer-Vitter bill incorporates a package of reforms sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. The Casey measures would increase the federal government's share for major waterways rehabilitation projects, establish a system to identify and apply lessons learned from previous projects and establish an investment program for inland waterways projects, and move an expensive Olmsted, Ill. waterways project to other federal funding sources in order to free WRDA funds for other projects including the high-profile and high-priority project on the Lower Monongahela River.
The Olmsted project on the Ohio River currently receives about $147 million of the $170 million allocated each year to the Corps of Engineers.
Officials at the Pittsburgh office of the Army Corps of Engineers say locks and dams in the region desperately need to be overhauled. Without the WRDA bill, all the agency can do are quick piecemeal fixes to emergent problems. That kind of unplanned work blocks barges from progressing, and costs industries and transportation companies money.
Consumers and people who live near rivers should be concerned about the problems, too, said Carmen Rozzi, chief of plan formulation for the Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh office.
"A lot of times when there's a problem the water system gets impacted, plus the cost of the commodities will go up because they have to go by rail and by truck," Mr. Rozzi said in a telephone interview Monday.
In the Pittsburgh region, programs are funded through WRDA authorizations and user fees collected by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Lately, money from the trust fund has slowed to a trickle, said Ryan Fisher, outreach coordinator for the Pittsburgh office.
Congress is working on separate legislation to determine how to raise more money for river infrastructure improvements. One proposal calls for an increase in fuel taxes, something Mr. Stephaich and other stakeholders say they're willing to pay in order to make it easier to transport goods by barge through a reliable system of locks and dams.
In a report last year the national Research Council said the existing system of funding water resource projects is outdated. Procedures were put in place when the country was growing and there are no good mechanisms for prioritizing and funding maintenance efforts, according to the report by a council committee led by David A. Dzombak, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
Many of the "challenges are rooted in political issues and decisions," according to the report. "A willingness to make a break with past traditions and past practices will be needed."