Waterways Council lays out funding priorities

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, March 9, 2016 - Waterways Council Inc. says it will advocate for improvements to the nation's inland waterway infrastructure in 2016, starting with asking for an increase to what the group's CEO calls “the most disappointing budget to date.”

The Obama administration's fiscal 2017 budget proposes to reduce funding for inland water infrastructure by more than 20 percent compared to the FY 2016 budget of almost $6 billion. The group says the 2017 allocation would be short of what is needed for system repairs and maintenance so critical to transporting the nation's grain.

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However, there has been a trend in Congress allocating above and beyond the administration's request for the Army Corps of Engineers budget. Since the Army Corps plays such a substantial role in inland waterway infrastructure, Waterways Council President and CEO Michael Toohey says he hopes Congress will once again fund above the administration's request as it has done the last three years.

“Congress has really bought into the idea that we need to modernize and maintain our inland waterways system,” he told a gathering of reporters Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

WCI is advocating for an increase in the Corps' operations and maintenance account, which received $3.1 billion FY 2016. The group also wants to see the monies in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund be allocated to their intended use, which would allocate $390 million in FY 2017 to four primary navigation construction projects: Olmsted ($225 million); Lower Monongahela ($66 million); Kentucky Lock ($52 million); Chickamauga ($19 million); and a major rehabilitation project at the LaGrange Lock ($28 million).

Lastly, WCI's third FY 2017 priority involves $10 million in pre-construction engineering and design funding for the Navigation Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP). Toohey said the current lack of funding for NESP is a “tragedy,” adding that he thinks it should be “poster child” of the Corps civil works mission because of its joint environmental and infrastructure benefits.

The Panama Canal is currently undergoing an expansion that will allow for bigger shipments, and Toohey said that could potentially lead to greater export competition from South America. He is worried that if the inland waterways system and other American infrastructure segments aren't up to snuff, South American improvements in infrastructure might lead to more exports from countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Columbia once the larger ships allowed by the improved canal start looking for timely grain from inland production.


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The group also has a set of other goals for the upcoming year, primarily to oppose any further legislative changes to user fees or potential closures of locks. Last year, operators agreed to a 42 percent increase of a user fee that would go toward repair and maintenance of the system, so WCI is opposed to any additional taxation or fees to the system's users. The group also pledges to fight any legislative closures of locks such as the closure of the Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock and Dam. Toohey said that closure was initiated to try and stop the spread of Asian carp, but the concession to open up the lock during flood stages - the prime migratory season of the fish - essentially defeated the purpose.

With more than 60 percent of the nation's locks at more than 50 years old, the inland waterways system was still able to move 604 million tons of goods in 2014 (the most recent figures available), but users of the system say it is sorely in need of maintenance.

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