Despite a new, reform-minded title, this year's waterway infrastructure bill making its way through Congress is anything but reformed, says a group of fiscally conservative critics.
The House on Wednesday will take up the the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, a measure that authorizes Army Corps of Engineer spending on the upkeep of the nation's inland waterways, including ports, dams, locks, rivers and harbors.
"Reform" was added to the title of the bill, but that has done little to make the legislation more cost efficient, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks and seven other groups who wrote to House lawmakers Monday opposing the legislation.
The bill prohibits special projects known as earmarks. But conservative critics say it also establishes a new system that would allow the public and outside groups to request project funding that would likely lead to waste and an increase in the $60 billion backlog of unfinished waterway projects.
"Our concern is that the Corps is going to be inundated with all sorts of projects that have no business being built, and they will have to evaluate all those projects, which will percolate up to Congress," Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told the Washington Examiner.
Under the House legislation, the Army Corps of Engineers would accept project proposals from the public and then submit them to Congress for a approval. But the bill lacks doesn't place any restrictions on what kinds of projects can be considered.
"Congress is no good at saying no," Ellis said. "Particularly if the requests are coming from constituents. So this could easily lead to a lot more projects being authorized."
Ellis said the House bill does little to reform the costly waterway projects program or its massive backlog and in many cases the bill makes the problem worse.
One provision, for example, would force the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for costly dredging in harbors that see little boat traffic.
Among the high-priced projects included in the bill is the Olmsted Dam, an Ohio River project between Illinois and Kentucky that tripled in cost because of delays and construction problems.
The dam, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country, was infamously included in the recently passed compromise bill to re-open the government and raise the nation's debt ceiling. Lawmakers dropped in a provision authorizing $2.9 billion for the dam, a $600 million increase over what the House bill would spend and a $1.2 billion increase over current authorized spending.
The dam funding was labeled a "Kentucky kickback" after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., although Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, not McConnell, inserted the language and the project is supported by most lawmakers.
The dam project is intended to widen a choke point in the Ohio River, but its completion has been complicated by the Corps' effort to build it underwater, rather than using the "cofferdam" method of excavating a dry space in which to build the new structure.
The project was first authorized by Congress in 1988. Back then, the estimated cost was $775 million with a completion date of 2000. The projected cost is now $3.1 billion and the completion date is 2024 — nearly a quarter century late and more than triple the cost.
Despite the problems associated with the project, the House legislation goes a step further than Feinstein by increasing the taxpayers' share of the dam's cost from 50 percent to 75 percent.
"The answer from Congress has not been to figure out how to rein in costs," Ellis said. "It's let's just stick it all to Uncle Sam so we can turn around and waste the money somewhere else."
Despite the concerns of Ellis and other taxpayer watchdogs, the water resources bill enjoys bipartisan support and will likely win approval Wednesday.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said the bill is needed to ensure the upkeep and repair of the nation's crumbling marine infrastructure.
"It's about economic growth," Shuster said during a hearing on the legislation. "It's about jobs. So that manufacturers can get their products to the world markets."
About 70 percent of the nation's soybeans and 62 percent of its corn are shipped on barges that navigate internal waterways.
Shuster said the bill also includes changes to the environmental reviews of infrastructure projects that he said would help shorten what is now a 15-year process.