An aging U.S. waterway infrastructure – which carries more than 60 percent of America’s grain and other commodity exports -- may be set to get a funding boost from Congress that will allow for more than a facelift. In fact, the spine of the system is in desperate need of repair and new construction and long-term plans are coalescing to fulfil those needs.
Two bills have been introduced in Congress – “Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency, and Environment Act” (WAVE 4, H.R. 1149) in the House and the “Water Resources Development Act" (WRDA, S.601) in the Senate – that address waterway concerns.
“Construction, dredging and repairs to our locks and dams will help ensure the reliability of the most affordable, energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable mode of transporting agricultural products,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, about the House bill.
The bill’s sponsor, Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield, said, “Efficient and reliable transportation of goods on our inland waterways is essential to economic development, job creation, and remaining competitive in the global marketplace. Our aging infrastructure jeopardizes efficient waterborne commerce and highlights the need for the WAVE4 Act that will implement a comprehensive plan to improve project management and put in place an objective investment strategy that will prioritize our infrastructure needs.”
On Wednesday (Mar. 27), Farm Press spoke with Debra Colbert, senior vice president with the Waterways Council, about the state of the nation’s waterway systems, Congress’ approach to funding, and how the barge-towing industry keeps much skin in the game. Among her comments:
On exceeding the system’s design life…
“The problems that we’re facing in the inland industry is that the lock and dam infrastructure are outdated. More than half of the locks and dams have exceeded their 50-year design life. We’re seeing a lot of aging and continual degradation of the system.
“While it’s still reliable for shippers, if we continue funding it at the insufficient levels of the last several years that trend will quickly result in the system’s unreliability and potential catastrophic failure. Some of the issues related to the low-water crisis that threatened shipping in 2012 could be a regular occurrence.
“At Waterways Council we’ve been advocating for some time for a reasonable, forward-looking plan that will be able to provide the funding for infrastructure improvements in an efficient way.”
On the “deal” between shippers and the government…
“Essentially, what’s being done currently – which has been in place since 1986 when a waterways bill was enacted – is a deal between the government and barge and towing operators. The operators pay for half of the cost of new construction of navigation projects and major rehabilitation on the system. That 50 percent is paid for through a 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax based on the amount of diesel fuel burned on the system.
“That means there are only about 300 taxpayers that pay into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Recreational boaters don’t pay it, commercial fishermen don’t pay it, passenger vessels don’t pay it. We’re the only segment that pays that user fee.
“Generally, that user fee generates around $85 million to $100 million per year. That amount is then matched by the government’s general treasury dollars. Again, those funds are to be used for new construction and rehabbing the waterways system.
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“Some continue to say that we’re the most highly subsidized transportation mode. That is completely and totally inaccurate. In fact, we pay into a system that benefits many – those who receive hydro-power from the dams, municipal water supplies, flood control and protection, waterfront development, and many other things. All those things are as a result of the lock and dam system.”
Crumbling structures, costs
In terms of the 50-year shelf life of the lock and dams, is there actually crumbling of the structures?
“Yes, particularly in the Pittsburgh region where many of the most aged structures are. Construction of many of these was begun in the early 1900s and they are now showing their age. Others were started but not yet completed because the funding isn’t adequate.
“Each year, money is authorized for these projects but isn’t fully appropriated. It’s like building a house over decades instead of just in a year. Instead of the house costing $100,000 and taking 12 months to build, the cost soars as you take longer and longer. That isn’t smart or efficient because the cost of materials continues to rise, there are delays and contractors switch out.”
How much is needed to fund the needed construction?
“What we’re looking for is an annual, sustained amount of $380 million per year for the next 20 years. Now, $110 million of that would be paid for our user fees. The rest would come from the government.
“We came up with that figure because of several things. The Capital Development Plan was formulated a couple of years ago by the Inland Waterways Users Board, primarily industry folks and members of the Corps of Engineers.
“The elements of the board’s development plan are in legislative form in a House bill (WAVE 4) and companion Senate legislation. WAVE 4 was actually introduced in 2012 and reintroduced just last week. At the end of February, the River Act was introduced in the Senate.
“The bill calls for a number of things. First, they’d raise the amount of the user fee from 20 cents to between 26 and 29 cents per gallon. … We want to raise the amount we pay because it’s an investment that will pay off later.
“Second, we want to prioritize needed projects across the board. We need a matrix based on how far along they are, what their cost/benefit ratio is. Are all the Environmental Impact Statements completed? Are we starting from scratch?
“We’ve also asked the government to take on the dam features of these projects. That would allow us to focus on using the user fee to pay for the new construction and rehab of the locks.”
On waterways and agriculture…
“The cheapest and cost-competitive way for the ag community to get products to export markets is by barge on the waterways. That’s why we have a tremendous agricultural advocacy groups that belong to the Waterways Council. Truck or train just can’t compete.”
Do you think Congress is listening to you during these austere times?
“The problem is there are so many competing interests. There are also a couple of issues with lawmakers who have taken a ‘no earmark’ pledge. Then, you have others in Congress who have taken a ‘no taxes’ pledge. We think this is a user fee but anything that even smells like a tax can be problematic – even when you’re calling for a rise in the amount you pay personally.
“Even so, we do think the way the water situation with the middle Mississippi River and drought raised the alarm on these issues in a big way. Those concerns went right to the White House and key members of Congress.
“There’s also the potential of the Panama Canal expansion and what that could bring. Many lawmakers don’t want to be unprepared to reap all the benefits of that. That’s driving some of this.”