Barge industry should reassess funding plan strategy

Last week, proponents of a plan to reform the way federal water projects are financed and managed said they are moving ahead with the proposal, despite opposition from the Obama administration. 

But although the vast majority of the nation’s locks and dams are crumbling and in dire need of replacement or repair, trying to move this proposal along at the current time and in the current political climate might not be the best approach.

Backed by the Inland Waterways Users Board and a host of other waterways users, the plan has unfortunately come to fruition at the wrong place (in politically polarized Washington, D.C.) and at the wrong time (as the country faces a $1.65 trillion budget deficit). 

A big drawback is a recommendation in the plan to shift financing for some lock and dam construction from a 50/50 cost sharing setup between Uncle Sam and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to taxpayers. Such a concept runs counter to the current climate on Capitol Hill, and has drawn the ire of not only the administration, but also environmental and budget watchdog groups. 

As a congressional aide told the annual legislative summit of the National Waterways Conference in early March, the conversation in Congress isn’t about how to spend federal dollars, but rather about how NOT to spend them.  

The November elections and persistent public opinion polls cite deficit reduction as a top priority for Americans, and this has shifted the focus in Congress. “The new members have a mandate to cut spending, and have a voting bloc to enforce this will on the House leadership,” Michael Higdon, chief of staff to Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said. “Trench warfare is setting in.”

Congress is also bent on stopping the congressional practice of earmarks. This could hurt waterways projects, which are quintessential earmarks, because they are often added to the federal budget by individual lawmakers to benefit specific areas of the country.

Instead of moving full steam ahead, risking failure and wasting industry dollars that are underwriting the lobbying campaign, wouldn’t it be better to pause, reassess and maybe tweak the plan a bit?

Several sources have told me that as currently written, the plan is a “non-starter.” In the current climate, lawmakers won’t embrace something that involves huge outlays of federal funds, and Democrats are unlikely to support an initiative rejected by the Obama administration. 

The plan also proposes a tax increase (up to a 9-cent hike in the per-gallon diesel tax paid by the barge industry to support the Trust Fund) at a time when many lawmakers have made pledges not to increase taxes.

The barge industry is opposed to putting the plan on hold, given the poor condition of the inland waterways infrastructure. They are correct about the infrastructure, but are taking a huge gamble that the plan can pass in this very difficult and unpredictable political environment.

The industry needs to regroup, come up with a new strategy, and resume this battle on another day.

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About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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