The Travel Inn, off the Black Horse Pike in West Atlantic City, suffered serious flooding during an October nor'easter.

The average federal flood insurance policy and fees in Cape May and Atlantic counties cost about $1,500 annually.

A bipartisan bill being introduced in Congress this week seeks to bring that number down. It’s backed by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Reps. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, Frank Pallone, D-6th and Bill Pascrell, D-9th, and other lawmakers.

The National Flood Insurance Program Re-authorization and Reform Act of 2019 would:

Cap annual rate increases at 9%. The current maximum is 25% per year in perpetuity.

Create a “means-tested affordability program” for low- and middle-income homeowners and renters. A person would qualify for a voucher if their high premium causes housing costs to exceed 30% of their adjusted gross income.

Implement optional monthly installment plans to pay annual premiums.

Exclude catastrophic loss years from the average historical loss year calculation.

“Affordability is a big part of this legislation,” said Menendez. “I think (the affordability components) are going to be incredibly important to New Jerseyans and the rest of the country.”

The proposed law comes as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the National Flood Insurance Program, looks to change the way it calculates rates in 2020. Insurance analysts and lawmakers fear the new Risk Rating 2.0 system could raise premiums for those least able to afford it.

It would base premiums on multiple statistical factors, including the exact location of a home and its price. Currently, rates are determined by a property’s elevation, its location in the 100-year floodplain and whether it has vents on the foundation.

Menendez said his bill seeks to prevent rate shocks from FEMA’s “untested and secretive” overhaul of premiums. FEMA has released few details about the rating system, outside of a three-paragraph statement on its website.

“(Risk Rating 2.0) is a ticking time bomb that will explode rates once it takes effect,” Menendez said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference in Washington, D.C.

The bill also reauthorizes the NFIP until 2024. It is set to expire Sept. 30.

The heavily subsidized program is more than $25 billion in debt, and Congress has been reauthorizing it on a short-term basis for the past few years. It became strained after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with the frequency of intense storms and as more policyholders switch to private insurers. As of April, there were nearly 81,000 federal policies in force in Cape May and Atlantic counties.

The Senate bill would dedicate more dollars to flood mitigation, which the lawmakers say would save the program money in the long run. Mitigation efforts include more money for buyouts and elevations for the properties that repeatedly flood.

The bill also proposes temporarily freezing interest payments on the NFIP debt to free up $400 million annually. The same amount of money would go toward modernizing FEMA’s outdated flood maps and creating maps for 2.3 million miles of waterways that haven’t been assessed.

“This is a big deal,” said Van Drew. “Sometimes people don’t realize it because they come from parts of the state where they don’t understand the impact.”

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