This is the third in what we plan as a series of posts on what the Administration and Congress may do to address the nation’s ailing infrastructure.
I recently spoke to the members of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA) at its conference. It has been just over 20 years that coastal activists first began what has now become an annual commitment to bring their message to Washington. These conferences are very vibrant, buzzing with energy and excitement, with folks meeting new people and finding ways to partner up and collaborate on projects back home. There is always a feeling of optimism and people leave with a renewed feeling that things will get done. But this time, things felt different. The excitement was mixed with anxiety. The energy with some doubt. The question that lingered on everyone’s minds was, “What is the way forward?”
It is clear to everyone that this is an especially challenging time for us as coastal advocates. Without regard for the political climate, we face rising seas and threats to lives, safety, the economy and the environment that come from both natural and man-made forces of change. In 2009, as the newly-inaugurated President Obama readied his economic stimulus package, “infrastructure” was a major topic of political discussion. So it is again today, with President Trump.
Yet, we are five months out of a presidential election that divided the nation (or reflected a divided nation). Even though Republicans for the first time in many years control both the White House and Congress, there is every sign that the divisions within and between the two parties are growing. As I visit with Members and staff on Capitol Hill, the pressures to appear to be doing something are increasing, while consensus about substantive results remains elusive. Unfortunately, water is our nation’s silent infrastructure, and coasts are the water resources that are least understood by policy makers in the legislative & executive branches.
This is where the uncertainty for coastal advocates stems from. And I have a feeling that the uncertainty is not only felt by those of us at the ASBPA conference, but also by thousands of coastal advocates across the United States. In my speech, I urged them to keep a few points in mind as we move forward, which I want to reproduce below with the hope that they may be useful to you too.
- Without regard to party politics, there is no federal commitment to coastal resilience nor is there the funding to maintain the federal government’s statutory commitments to a variety of water resource projects.
- The process of studying, authorizing, funding and managing Corps of Engineers coastal projects one at a time, with policies made by one set of committees and the funding to carry them out provided by another is leaving our coastal resources vulnerable. It’s a process that was created by Congress in the 19th century and needs to be changed to meet 21st century demands.
- Members of Congress took away their own power to earmark appropriations, but the Corps budget has always been earmarked by the President. The result is that middle management at the White House Office of Management and Budget has the power to choose which projects get funded and which studies get approved, and it exercises that micromanagement in a capricious and arbitrary manner. Congress needs to take back the power it gave away. At best, the sum of all coastal storm resilience studies and projects is now being funded at merely $80 million to $100 million a year from the federal government. That’s equivalent to the cost of a mainline commercial airplane.
- I don’t foresee any concrete action on infrastructure this year. There are a few very contentious issues that will need to be dealt with in 2017. There is an opportunity for ASBPA to talk with congressional leaders of both parties about bundling projects and creating new regionally-based initiatives that will save taxpayer dollars and increase resilience. Time also gives you the opportunity to reach out to the business community & other key stakeholders to have them walking by your side when you return to Washington next year.
These are my initial thoughts on the matter. Shortly before the current measure providing temporary funding for all government agencies expires on April 28th, I expect Congress will extend it through the end of the federal fiscal year, which expires on September 30th. The good news is that this will release a larger amount of funding for the Corps – and for shore protection -- than we are likely to see next year. The bad news will come from the rush to get these funds under contract before the end of the FY or risk having “left over” money be an excuse for lowering the Corps’ future funding. If coastal advocates keep their focus on both their immediate funding needs and the longer-term realization that significant changes are needed, I am optimistic that we can handle the challenges and opportunities that this time presents.
As always, please feel free to reach out to me with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org!