WASHINGTON, April 22, 2015 – The water development bill and barge tax increase that passed Congress last year could start to pay off for the ports and waterways critical to moving agricultural exports. Harbor projects are likely to be the biggest near-term beneficiaries.
The House’s fiscal 2016 funding bill for the Army Corps of Engineers would increase funding for inland water projects by $59 million over fiscal 2015 and $70 million over fiscal 2014. The bill also would spend nearly $1.2 billion on port projects from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. That would be a 5.1 percent increase from the current fiscal year and $915 million more than the White House requested for fiscal 2016.
Those are not insignificant increases at a time when funding for much of the government is going to be flat.
The bill, which the House Appropriations Committee was scheduled to debate Wednesday, also would boost the Corps’ operation and maintenance account to nearly $3.1 billion for fiscal 2016.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), enacted last spring, made some key changes in the way the federal government funds port and waterway projects in order to boost funding for repairs and new construction.
Until passage of WRRDA, appropriators were diverting half the harbor maintenance tax revenue every year to other priorities - rather than the port projects the trust fund was supposed to finance. The new law requires a bigger share of the revenue each year to be reserved for harbor work. The law also ensured that there would be more money available for locks and dams and other waterways projects by shifting to the general treasury much of the cost of the over-budget Olmsted project on the Ohio River, freeing up money in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for work on other projects.
Then in December, Congress gave another boost to waterways funding by passing a 9-cent-a-gallon increase in the barge tax that funds the inland waterways fund.
The funding levels in the fiscal 2016 spending bill are in line with what lawmakers authorized last year. Michael Toohey, president of the Waterways Council Inc., said “this is a cause and effect scenario: invest properly in inland waterways and ports and increase U.S. competitiveness.”
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said “the potential increased funding for inland waterways and harbor maintenance is a step in the right direction.”
The most immediate impact for agribusiness will be to accelerate harbor projects on the lower Mississippi and Columbia rivers, he said. Any major improvements to locks and dams on the upper Mississippi are much farther down the road.
The soybean industry has been particularly concerned about deepening the lower Mississippi River harbors to accommodate larger vessels needed for shipping commodities through the expanded Panama Canal to Asian markets.
“Moving forward, we are pleased with the prospect of increased funding for inland waterways, but my outlook, unfortunately, is that there remains a disproportionate ratio between the cost of our inland waterways wish list and the revenue likely to be devoted to it,” Steenhoek said in an email. “In many respects, it is analogous to trying to purchase a $2 million home on a $20,000 salary. As a result, I contend that we need to first prioritize maintaining and preserving the system. If more funding eventually becomes available, then let's pursue building and expanding the system.”
Agriculture has other interests in the Energy and Water funding bill, too. The measure includes a provision that would block the Obama administration from implementing a rule to re-define what streams, ponds, ditches, and wetlands are regulated under the Clean Water Act as “waters of the United States” (WOTUS). The bill also would allow the possession of firearms on lands operated by the Corps of Engineers. The White House Office of Management and Budget released a statement Tuesday afternoon objecting to both provisions
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