Barge industry to push ahead with funding reform plan

Advocates of a modern inland navigation system say they haven’t given up hope that Congress can pass a plan to reform how federal water projects are selected and funded, despite opposition to the plan from the Obama administration.

 The Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan, a collaborative effort between the towing industry and the federal government, would increase the diesel tax paid by barge companies, shift funding for dams to the federal government, and improve the project delivery of federal water projects to avoid costly delays.

 To the surprise of the plan’s authors, the Army Corps of Engineers, representing the Obama administration, rejected the plan in December. Among the objections was a proposed shift of funding for many projects from waterways users to the federal government.

 Cornel Martin, president and CEO of the Waterways Council Inc., an advocacy group for a modern inland waterways infrastructure, said they are committed to the plan. The group is seeking allies on Capitol Hill despite the administration’s rejection and an extremely difficult and uncertain budget climate in Washington.

 “This is our best plan to fix the delivery model [of federal water projects]and we’ll work with Congress to implement the plan until someone comes up with a better plan,” Martin said at a luncheon with reporters on last week at the National Press Club.

 He said WCI staff and industry reps have already made 115 visits to members of Congress, “and we’ll continue to do that, realizing that we must push even harder.”

 If the development plan is approved, Martin said, there would be enough money to complete all 25 new construction and modernization projects along the inland system, compared to six under the present funding scheme.

 The situation in Congress, however, is not very hospitable. The plan runs counter to the current mood to cut federal spending, and against the pledge of many lawmakers not to increase taxes (the plan proposes a hike in the diesel fuel tax paid by the barge industry to finance half the costs of new inland construction).

 “It will be very tough. We have a huge hill to climb,” Martin said, adding that WCI members are behind pushing ahead with the plan and are funding the lobbying campaign.

 Martin was asked whether WCI should consider putting the plan aside for at least another two years and try again under a different Congress.

 “We never considered sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the environment to change. The state of our infrastructure is such that we really can’t wait,” Martin said. “If we are to continue to compete in world markets, then we must invest in our infrastructure. We can’t sit on the sidelines and wait a couple more years.”

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