What is in this article?:
- Waterways infrastructure bill passed by Senate
- Funds, projects, Panama
- Senate passes Water Resources Development Act.
- Will provide funds for waterways infrastructure improvements.
Funds, projects, Panama
Under this bill, how much money will actually be available to deal with waterways infrastructure for the Corps of Engineers and government agencies?
“In terms of lock and dam infrastructure, the thing that came out of the bill that is a big win for the nation is the fact that they voted to remove the long-delayed and over-budget Olmsted project from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF). Currently, that project, which started in 1988 as a $775 million project, has really gone out of control in cost and delays. That project has now cost $3.2 billion and won’t be finished until around 2020 to 2024.
“For users who pay for modernization of the (waterways) system – the barge and towing companies paying into the IWTF (50 percent towards construction and 50 percent towards major rehabilitation matched by the federal government) – the Olmsted overruns don’t allow us to do anything else except to fund that one challenging project. By taking that out of the trust fund, it will free up about $750 million to go on and complete other critical priority navigation projects. That’s absolutely important.”
What about the House version of this bill and what are you expecting in terms of movement on that?
“The companion bill to the Senate’s RIVER Act in the House is WAVE 4. It currently has bipartisan support with about 28 co-sponsors from across the nation.
“We’ve heard everything from a draft bill being prepared for this summer – June or July – to this fall. But it’s more likely there will be action in the early fall.
“We’re enthusiastic about the potential for the House bill. Even if the House decides to create its own bill, I think it will look at the strong passage of WRDA in the Senate and the elements included. We hope the House will also add in the user-fee component (discussed earlier).”
Was there any element regarding levee building/maintenance in the WRDA?
“Everyone had an interest – harbor maintenance, dredging, ports – all of that gets wrapped into the reauthorization. But we weren’t focused on the levees. Anything beyond the locks and dams we were particularly interested in was the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund management and how dredging will be done on our vital channels. If we have good lock and dam infrastructure but don’t have properly dredged channels to get products to the export market, half the equation is lost.”
In the earlier interview, you mentioned a 20-cents-per-gallon fuel tax for waterways users. Does that still hold after the Senate bill?
“That is part of the user fee increase. We’re calling for a 26-cent to 29-cent per gallon. Barge and tow operators now pay 20 cents. In the House version, they’d pay between 26 and 29 cents, based on the volume of cargo moved annually. So, one year the cost could be 26 cents and the next 29 cents.
“The Senate version calls for the full 29 cents per gallon. Again, that wasn’t introduced as it has to come from the House.
“Stakeholders and shippers are very happy to pay that increase. While the federalization of Olmsted is very helpful in giving some relief to the trust fund, we also need additional revenue and investment in the system. That’s why we’re doing our part to step up.
“Sometimes there are taxes or user fees that are put on lots of consumers but benefit only a very few. In this case, it’s just the opposite. There are only about 300 users that pay into that trust fund but it benefits so many others – those using hydropower, recreational boating and fishing, passenger vessels, all the waterfront property development, municipal water supplies. That’s worth noting.”
In March, besides the Olmsted project, you mentioned the waterways in the Pittsburgh region as being desperately in need of improvement. Does the Senate bill tackle that?
“Yes. There is a list of 25 priority projects put together by the Inland Waterways Users Board – a group of industry operators, executives and the Corps of Engineers.
“There are main projects that have been authorized and appropriated but not fully and efficiently funded and not about to be finished soon.
“They look at those projects and figure out cost/benefit ratios and come up with the list. First on that list is the Olmsted lock and dam project. In second place is a set of projects in the lower Monongahela River locks and dams near Pittsburgh. Third place is in Kentucky, a lock addition on the Tennessee (River) along with the Chickamauga lock. Then, there’s the Emsworth and Markland lock and dam rehabilitation on the Ohio River.
“Some of the most aged locks and dams are in the Pittsburgh region and they’d benefit if the House passes the bill.”
When the Senate passed WRDA, there were many agriculture groups that came out backing the measure.
“That wasn’t a surprise. Waterways Council is comprised of a broad coalition of groups that depend on a reliable waterways system. As part of our membership we have the barge and towing operators, the shipping companies like Bunge and ADM, Cargill and petroleum producers. Manufacturers also have provided great support along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the labor union community.
“There are also many state and national agricultural groups – corn, soybeans and others. They all came out to support the measure because they know there’s a direct connection to their ability to exports products in the most cost-competitive manner.”
Did preparing for the Panama Canal expansion come up in any of the Senate discussions?
“It did come up on the floor during debate.
“It remains to be seen what kind of benefits we may get from the Panama Canal expansion. Some expect to see a great increase in traffic and cargo in inland waterways as a result. Others are more skeptical and think it’s being hyped a bit.
“However, lawmakers seem to understand that if we know the expansion is coming and we do nothing (it could be dropping the ball). The potential for growing exports and helping our nation economically is there in the background. I think that helped push the timing on this bill.”
“I urge your readers to get in touch with their House legislators and urge the passage of (WAVE4) and push lock and dam infrastructure since it’s so important for the nation.”