Corps optimistic about federal money for flood control in Iowa

But Ernst calls $73 million in federal aid uncertain

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CEDAR RAPIDS — An Army Corps of Engineers official said he remains optimistic while U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst called it uncertain that Cedar Rapids will eventually see federal money for flood control.

In 2014, $73 million was authorized to control flooding on the east bank of the Cedar River.

This comes after Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said last week the city faces a “serious risk” that federal money for the east side flood protection system won’t come and the city must decide whether to wait or look for alternatives.

“We are optimistic the federal portion will come, we just don’t know on the timing,” said Michael Tarpey, an engineer and project manager with the Army Corps Rock Island District. He’s been working on the Cedar Rapids request.

Tarpey is scheduled to meet with an official from Cedar Rapids to discuss the flood protection system, which calls for flood walls, levees and pumps to protect property and residents from the Quaker Oats plant just north of downtown to an old railroad bridge south of downtown near the site of the old Sinclair meatpacking plant.

The project was authorized in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 but never funded. The project is eligible for money for 10 years, starting in 2014, but city officials say the federal cost-benefit formula used for prioritization is pushing the project further down the list as time passes.

Ernst, a Republican, struck a different tone in a statement released through her press office.

“This issue was raised (last spring) with the Senate Appropriations Committee to see if any change in formula relating to how the Army Corps of Engineers and Office of Management and Budget rank projects, like the Cedar Rapids request, was on the horizon,” Ernst spokeswoman Angela Zirkelbach said. “However, at this time, it seems uncertain that funding will be secured.

The corps helped make the case for the Cedar Rapids project with a feasibility study that led to the funding authorization. Tarpey said it still is a “good project” but is competing nationally against projects with other needs.

The federal money is authorized as part of a 65-35 federal-local match. Tarpey said Cedar Rapids can begin work on the Sinclair site or other portions of the east side system, some of which are slated for this summer, and not forgo the authorized federal money.

“The city could do the Sinclair project, and when the federal portion comes, it would be in kind for the overall project,” Tarpey said.

Iowa’s congressional delegation has been pressing for the federal money.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley wrote to the corps in 2014 but hasn’t repeated that effort, said his spokeswoman, Jill Gerber. She noted that Cedar Rapids hasn’t requested him to do so, and it probably wouldn’t help.

A federal ban on congressional earmarks have limited the pull senators and U.S. representatives have on specific projects.

“Sen. Grassley can take only limited action on specific projects since the Senate doesn’t allow earmarks,” Gerber said. “Any Corps of Engineers project is a long hurdle race, with study, authorization and funding required each step of the way.”

She added, “it will be largely up to OMB to decide which steps to take to move the project forward in that (10 year) authorization window.”

Officials from the Office of Management and Budget did not return multiple phone and email requests for comment.

U.S. Reps. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat, and Rod Blum, a Republican, have written multiple letters calling on the corps, the House Appropriations Committee, President Barack Obama and the OMB “to finally release the funds ... for this critical project,” Blum said in a statement.

In response to a July 2015 letter, the corps called the project “critical to protect the lives and property,” and credited Cedar Rapids for being proactive with “activities that have helped to set conditions for completion of the federal project,” Blum said. However, the corps said the Cedar Rapids project doesn’t meet federal cost-to-benefit metrics, he said.

Both Blum and Loebsack said they are “disappointed” the project continues to be put off but vowed to continue fighting to secure the federal money.

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