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Even if House approves, Fargo-Moorhead diversion stuck on funding

FARGO -- If the U.S. House of Representatives joins the Senate in authorizing the Fargo-Moorhead diversion this year, the project could still get lost in the line of more than 1,000 other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects OK'd by Congress but still waiting on federal funding.

There's no public master list of the corps backlog, but a recent Congressional Research Service Report estimates those 1,000-and-some studies and projects add up to $60 billion. More than half of the projects authorized in 2007 -- the last time Congress authorized a package of water infrastructure projects -- still haven't received a cent from Washington.

Since then, the nation's focus has shifted to upkeep for the nation's aging infrastructure and away from projects like the proposed $1.8 billion, 36-mile channel that would divert floods from the Red River around the metro area.

From fiscal year 2011 to 2013, Congress allocated an average of $2.4 billion to the corps for operation and maintenance, compared with $1.7 billion for new construction. Appropriations for new construction dropped in each of those years.

For the first time in four years, President Barack Obama didn't include any planning or design funds for the Fargo-Moorhead diversion in his budget proposal for next year.

Corps officials dispute the size of their backlog -- many of those 1,000 projects haven't sought funding for years, if not decades, they say. But diversion leaders and North Dakota's congressional delegation recognize the backlog may hinder the already-tall task of getting the $810 million in federal funds from Congress to pay for the $1.8 billion project.

For now, they say they need to focus on the task at hand -- getting the project authorized in the House, which is no guarantee. The vote could come up as soon as late summer.

"One step at a time," Diversion Authority chairman Darrel Vanyo said.

Old, not new

Big infrastructure projects are the corps' top priority, corps project manager Aaron Snyder said, and local leaders continually point to the diversion's solid benefit-to-cost ratio as a sort of trump card for moving the project forward.

But the diversion is neither the largest nor the most cost-efficient project in the corps' portfolio of new construction projects in the Water Resources Development Act, which the Senate passed May 15.

A similar flood control project near Sacramento, Calif., has an estimated federal cost of $931 million and a benefit-to-cost ratio of 2.6. The Fargo-Moorhead diversion is just behind, with a "score" of 1.5 for its $810 million price tag. An infrastructure project needs a benefit-to-cost ratio of at least 1.0 to be approved by Congress.

The federal government's share for the corps' four largest projects is $3.3 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That's more than double what the corps received for construction in 2013.

Of course, Congress would not simply cut a check to the Diversion Authority for $810 million -- any appropriations would be parceled out year-over-year.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the fact that it doesn't have to be funded in bulk may be a selling point in the House.

"It'd be crazy. It's not going to be built one-year," he said.

The path forward

Diversion leaders' visit in May to Washington was a tale of two worlds: one rosy about the chances of securing federal funding, the other much darker.

Vanyo said while some lawmakers were confident about the diversion, both Democratic and Republican staffers from the House committee that will decide its financial fate "felt that the likelihood of getting any dollars was pretty slim."

North Dakota's congressional delegation agreed that being snubbed in the president's budget proposal for 2014, released in April, was a setback for the diversion.

Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said the Obama administration told her it was left out because it hadn't yet been authorized, not as a reflection of the project itself. To date, the Diversion Authority has received more than $33 million for project planning, engineering and design.

"Without that authorization, it's going to be difficult to see a path forward," Heitkamp said.

Cramer said his conversations with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, make him confident the House will approve a WRDA bill with the diversion in it. He said he expects the bill to hit the House floor in late summer or early fall.

But that final authorization won't come with any dollars -- just a place in a very long line to get funding.

The Senate's version of the WRDA bill would slim down that line by setting up a commission to weed out inactive projects. Even if that doesn't make it in the final version, Vanyo said he likes the diversion's chances for securing federal money.

"You can't keep filling the bucket with more and more projects through authorization without figuring out a way to fund them," Vanyo said.