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Senate plan: 'Expedite' Cedar Rapids flood protection system

By B.A. Morelli

CEDAR RAPIDS — Not long after local and federal officials acknowledged increasingly grim prospects a Cedar Rapids flood protection system would ever see federal money, a new light has suddenly sparked.

The Cedar Rapids flood project — a $625 million endeavor, of which $73 million is to come from federal sources — has made the cut in a narrowed list of four priority flood-related projects. The latest version of the 2016 water bill, which could be considered by the U.S. Senate in the coming days, directs the Army Corps of Engineers to “expedite the completion of four already-authorized projects,” including the Cedar Rapids project.

“The Cedar Rapids project is vitally important to the city,” U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, said on Thursday in a media conference call. “While this provision does not force the Corps to fund this project, it does show them that I and Congress believe this is a project that should be completed.”

The Chicagoland Underflow Plan in Chicago and two Louisiana projects for the Comite and Amite rivers are the others named in the latest version of the water bill, which was adopted Wednesday.

Even if the bill passes, the money isn’t guaranteed. Aside from needing approval in the House, Cedar Rapids could face the same quandary it did after the flood project was authorized in the 2014 water bill, but never funded.

The Army Corps, which ultimately must release the money, isn’t bound by the directive, officials said. Until these new priorities were discussed, local officials said the cost-benefit ratio for the Cedar Rapids project was slipping in the Corps rankings of projects.

The Corps has contended the Office of Management and Budget, which creates the federal budget, hasn’t allocated the money necessary to complete the projects.

The water bill only authorizes funding; it doesn’t appropriate funding, said Jill Gerber, a spokeswoman for Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Cedar Falls.

“Sen. Grassley’s hope is that this latest emphasis he helped lead will have a positive effect on future funding decisions, but the budgetary constraints remain,” she said.

“If the bill is enacted, it would be up to the Corps of Engineers to request line item funding for the Cedar Rapids project during the budget process. That involves separate legislation to appropriate funding for specific projects,” Gerber said. “Encouraging the Corps to expedite the Cedar Rapids project is a noteworthy step in the process, but funding decisions ultimately rest with the Corps and the legislative appropriations process.”

Still, seeing Cedar Rapids prioritized in the narrower pool is promising.

“Sometimes when you raise a little hell it can make a difference,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said, adding, “Until we see the dollars, I temper my excitement.”

Corbett called it “very significant,” and also a sign the project hasn’t fallen off the radar.

Just last month Corbett worked with his colleagues to identify a plan “B, C, D and E” to replace the federal dollars after Grassley said he wasn’t optimistic about the Cedar Rapids project, which was authorized with a larger list of candidates in the 2014 water bill but was never funded.

the New York Times, citing insiders, reported the $9 billion Water Resources Development Act of 2016 — prioritizing the Cedar Rapids project — is expected to clear the Senate, but its path is unclear in the House, which has discussed a $5 billion version.

“While it is good news that the project is in the bill, the real issue has and continues to be funding,” said Joe Hand, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa City. “Since nothing has been introduced here in the House we don’t really have much more info than that.”

— James Q. Lynch contributed to this report.