Army Corps nominee says he would examine federal formula for flood protection

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The nominee for a top position in the U.S. Army of Corps Engineers said he would reevaluate the benefit-to-cost ratio used to determine which water infrastructure projects get federal money.

Iowa officials at the local, state and federal levels have argued the formula favors coastal areas where property values are greater. Rural areas and Midwestern cities, such as Cedar Rapids, with modest property values are at a disadvantage, they said.

“I think this needs to be addressed for the benefit of the country,” R.D. James, the White House nominee for Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, said during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Congress authorized federal funding for a Cedar Rapids flood control project after the city sustained $5 billion in loss from the 2008 flood as part of the 2014 Water Resources Development Act. The 2016 version of the bill prioritized it again, but the money has not been released.

The city is counting on more than $70 million in federal assistance toward its $700 million flood control system.

“It’s not right that there’s people in this country (who) will never, ever get any type of water infrastructure project under the current (benefit-to-cost ratio) analysis,” said James, who is a farmer from Missouri.

James first wants to forge relationships with officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife, the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Agriculture, but then would examine the ratio in a timely manner, he said.

His comments came in response to questions from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, during the hearing.

Ernst called his acknowledgment the first step to moving forward.

“Iowa has very reasonable housing property values,” she said. “That keeps the (benefit-to-cost ratio) down and that prevents federal funding.

“This is not an issue unique to Iowa. I’ve talked to many other rural legislators suffering from the same (ratios).”

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett called it positive news. But the commitment comes with no timeline and it’s not clear whether any new formula would be retroactive to projects already in the pipeline.

“It is recognition on their part there is a flaw in the formula,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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