Congress urged to boost funding for U.S. ports, waterways

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, March 11, 2015 - Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) is concerned about what President Barack Obama's spending plans may do to the nation's already fragile inland waterways system.

WCI, a group that advocates for modernizing the national system of ports and inland waterways, is pushing for increased funding for the Army Corps of Engineers. They say the Corps, which is chiefly responsible for building and maintaining waterway infrastructure, should be allocated $2.755 billion for fiscal year 2016, $407 million more than called for in the $1.1 trillion “cromnibus” FY 2015 spending package.

In letters sent to House and Senate Appropriations leadership, WCI and more than 40 other organizations and businesses cite the recent West Coast port dispute as an example of problems that can arise when maritime transportation is interrupted. Problems with the port system have been a source of concern for years, and groups signing the letter are concerned that unless immediate action is taken, it might be too late to repair locks and dams along the Mississippi river.

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“We must maintain our navigation channels and inland waterways for safe and efficient freight movement to avoid similar impacts nationwide over the long term,” the letter said.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, WCI President and CEO Mike Toohey said despite the famed inactivity of Congress in 2014, WCI actually had a “banner year” with legislation, getting most of its priorities enacted. In June, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA) was signed by the president and a 9-cent increase to the inland diesel tax was approved in December, adding more revenue the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for maintenance and new construction.

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Looking ahead, WCI and other stakeholders in the inland waterways system are hoping for successful implementation of WRRDA and sound use of the increased revenue to the trust fund. Toohey said under WRRDA, new construction and major rehabilitation projects will be accelerated, and cost-sharing will allow trust fund dollars to be stretched further than the Olmsted Lock and Dam. That project, on the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi, is already $1 billion over cost with an estimated $1.059 billion left to complete the project after an engineering snafu slowed construction and increased costs.

Toohey said if population estimates are to be believed, an estimated 9 billion people around the world will be relying on the U.S. as the “breadbasket” of the world by mid-century (up from the current population of about 7.1 billion), and efficient transportation infrastructure will be a necessity to move the country's agricultural production.

“We need to make investments both in rail, both in highway, and in water, and in air to be ready for this explosion of 4 billion tons of new freight,” Toohey said. “(We can't) just say, ‘Well maybe (more freight) won't show up.' It's coming, and what are we going to do about it?”

Toohey said by mandate, budgeting for the Corps is done in reaction, not projection.

“The data we get from the Corps is basically two years behind. We're just now getting access to 2013 movements (on the inland waterways system),” Toohey said. “I would love to have perfect information and perfect forward-looking data, but the way we do it now is two years in the rearview mirror, and it's a problem.”

Aside from an increased budget for the Corps in FY 2016, WCI is also seeking:

  • Funding of $180 million for the Olmsted project with cost sharing of 85 percent from the general fund and 15 percent from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.
  • Funding of at least $180 million for other inland waterways priority capital investments.
  • Appropriations of at least $700 million for inland waterways operations and maintenance.
  • Energy and Water appropriations of full amount targeted in WRRDA from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.
  • A total of $360 million for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

Toohey said there are 25 “shovel-ready” projects along the river, but the rearview mirror approach with Corps budgeting makes it difficult to put those shovels to work. Because the Corps must make projections based on past use, funding along the waterways runs short, something that concerns him.

“The administration historically underfunds this function, so there's no interest in growing the program to make the investments we think are needed to serve the nation in 2040,” Toohey said. “We find that such an irony, because over (at the Department of Transportation), they're advocating to make those investments.”

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Story updated at 12:32 to include links to letters. 

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