A water resources reauthorization bill nearing final congressional approval could accelerate the reconstruction of locks and dams and other waterway projects.
The Water Resources Development Act of 2020, authorized every two years, would make a significant change in the funding sources for waterway projects. Under current law, half the funding for projects comes come from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which depends on revenue from barge fuel taxes. The other half comes from the federal Treasury. Under the bill, the trust fund would contribute 35% and the Treasury 65%. The change would free up roughly $100 million a year in general funds for inland waterway construction projects.
Lawmakers hoped to attach the water projects measure to an omnibus spending bill that Congress needs to pass to fund the government for fiscal 2021.
Changing the cost-share has been a majority priority for the Waterways Council, which includes agricultural shippers. Waterways Council President Tracy Zea said the cost-share requirement hasn't been changed since the 1986 water projects bill.
“You’re looking at funding three to four projects to completion, additional, with that funding,” he told Agri-Pulse.
Zea said the change will expedite the construction timeline of lock and dam infrastructure, including the upper Mississippi River project known as the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which was authorized in 2007.
NESP is a long-term project to renovate the upper Mississippi River system over a 50-year period. The program has received funding, but has not started yet because the Corps has been completing other projects.
“You’re going to see a new start for the first lock of the seven locks for the NESP program to be funded in fiscal year '21 or '22 due to this cost-share change,” Zea said.
The industry is looking ahead to the release of the Army Corps of Engineers' work plan for FY21, which would announce whether the NESP project will start in this fiscal year. FY21 started Oct. 1.
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The goal of the NESP program is to “reduce commercial traffic delays while restoring, protecting, and enhancing the environment,” according to the Corps website.
The water projects bill also authorizes roughly $9.9 billion in federal funds for 46 reports by the Army Corps of Engineers on navigation, flood risk management, hurricane and storm damage risk reduction, flood risk management, ecosystem restoration and water supply projects.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, agreed additional funding would expedite work on waterway infrastructure projects, but noted there is always a concern with attaching a “widely bipartisan” bill to a massive omnibus bill that could get hung up on disagreements.
“Any time it gets attached to something more controversial it has the opportunity to sink the entire ship and all of those passengers that are on board,” Steenhoek told Agri-Pulse, noting he would like to see WRDA pass as a stand-alone bill.
A spokesperson for the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee told Agri-Pulse Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., “is committed to passing bipartisan water infrastructure legislation, including as part of a larger legislative package.”
Steenhoek said a prime example of how the increased cost-share worked well is with the Olmsted Lock and Dam repair along the Ohio River.
“It really was a game-changer for that project when the federal government assumed 85% of the cost and then the Inland Waterways Trust Fund assumed the other 15%,” Steenhoek said.
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. economic benefits of the Olmsted repair are over $640 million each year and the improvements will pay for themselves over roughly four years. It is located near the confluence of the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers, an area where more commerce passes through than any other inland waterway location in the entire U.S.
“That was obviously directed at one specific project that was obviously very problematic and needed to get resolved,” Steenhoek noted.
As the Olmsted project is on the Kentucky border, Steenhoek suggested Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., understands the importance of moving forward with measures to fix the nation’s inland waterways.
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