Advocates for improving and restoring U.S. inland navigation facilities expect to secure a third consecutive two-year national water projects bill this year.

Despite Congress’ habit of agreeing to little in an election year, Michael Toohey, executive director of Waterways Council Inc., pointed out Tuesday at a National Press Club briefing in Washington that the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is planning to complete its 2018 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), and Senate committee action is anticipated yet this spring.

On the other hand, WCI, which represents barge operators, condemned the water transportation aspects of both the Trump administration’s infrastructure building proposal and its annual budget proposal. “The cumulative effect is horrible for the inland waterways,” Toohey said.

What’s more, he said, Democratic lawmakers will probably fight passage of a big infrastructure funding bill by a Republican Congress in an election year, so such legislation is not too likely in 2018.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, agreed. “There’s some real headwinds to getting a major infrastructure bill passed this year . . . there’s a lot of things that will complicate matters.”

But Steenhoek and Bobby Frederick, legislative director for the National Grain and Feed Association, point to the positive trend Congress has set in passing WRDA bills in both 2014 and 2016 – winning more than 400 House votes in both cases.

WRDA is the blueprint authorizing waterway project studies, engineering and construction. It’s the first crucial step towards getting the dollars actually appropriated for construction, Steenhoek notes.

Mike Toohey

Mike Toohey, Waterways Council Inc.

To that end, WCI and other waterway improvement advocates want $403 million in fiscal year 2019 appropriated dollars for inland waterways construction by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. That compares with just $35 million in the administration’s budget, which would result in suspension of nearly all construction, and more than $400 million passed by Congress in recent years. For further years, inland waterway supporters will press for a 2018 WRDA bill that targets $400 million a year for construction and replacement of locks, dams and other inland navigation facilities in years ahead.

“If we want to keep having successful ag exporting years . . . waterways are probably the most efficient way to do that,” Frederick said.

Soybean growers often attribute much of their exporting success to the economics of shipping U.S. beans by water. Toohey noted that according to a 2015 USDA estimate, transporting soybeans from Iowa to China costs $35 per metric ton less than from Brazil’s interior to China.

In the WRDA bill, Toohey said, inland waterway shippers want the U.S. Treasury share of waterways facilities construction – now 50 percent with the other 50 percent borne by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund – to rise to 75 percent. The IWTF is supported entirely by the 29-cent-per-gallon fuel tax that inland waterway barge operators pay. He points out that, for sea harbor projects, the cost sharing is 75 percent federal and 25 percent from a tax on cargo at the seaports, and he wants river shippers’ share of construction costs to be equitable to what it is at the ports.

WCI is also proposing that WRDA redirect 10 percent of the $1.5 billion federal hydropower plants’ net revenue from the U.S. Treasury and into the IWTF.

Toohey says WCI wants inland waterway facilities improvement funding that can allow some catch-up for the nation’s 239 aging locks and dams on rivers and coastal waterways. By 2020, more than three-fourths of them will have aged past their half-century design life, he said, so an acceleration of funding and improvements is necessary.

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