Barge leaders say they’ll pay more for inland waterways

Barge operators canvassed Capitol Hill this week asking Congress to raise the taxes that they pay on diesel fuel in order to beef up spending on the nation’s crumbling inland navigation infrastructure.

Officials from across the U.S. representing the tug, towboat and barge industry placed infrastructure improvements at the top of their list of priorities for discussion when meeting with more than 130 senators and congressmen. Called a “Barge In,” the sessions are part of the annual gathering of the American Waterways Operators, the national association of the barge industry, being held in Washington this week.

They want Congress to pass a new Water Resources Development Act that would include financial and policy changes to improve how the nation’s inland system is managed and financed. Legislation is currently under active consideration in both chambers, and congressional leaders have said WRDA is a priority for passage this year. The last WRDA bill was approved six years ago.

Industry leaders support the Capital Development Plan, developed by a federal advisory panel that would increase the barge tax from 20 cents to 29 cents a gallon. That money is placed in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which finances half the cost of new waterways infrastructure construction. The federal government finances the rest. The CDP also shifts funding for major rehabilitation to the federal treasury and improves the Corps of Engineers’ project management and processes to assure completion of projects on time and within budget.

The current system of financing is “seriously broken and must be reformed,” Peter Stephaich, president of Campbell Transportation Co., Pittsburgh, told a hearing on Wednesday before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. He said the CDP has been introduced as legislation in the House and Senate and the goal is to include it as part of the broader WRDA bill now under consideration.

Stephaich told the panel that having a healthy inland navigation system was important to both the domestic and international economy, to U.S. jobs and agriculture. “We cannot continue to pretend that failing to act to remedy this problem is an acceptable approach,” he said. “We need the Capital Development Plan now.”

The CDP has won support from more than 200 organizations and a handful of congressmen. But two key House leaders say that winning passage of the diesel tax increase and increased federal spending on waterways will be difficult given the current anti-tax, spending-cut mood in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has suggested that a backup plan be developed. Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, chair of the subcommittee on Water Resources, told WorkBoat in a recent interview that, “Raising a tax and putting more costs on the federal side of the ledger are very hard sells right now.”

Despite these challenges, inland advocates think they can be successful as lawmakers are better educated about the value of the inland system and as Congress takes on a national tax reform bill.

“There are less than 300 payers of the current levy on motor fuel used on the inland waterways transportation system. These contributors and their customers support higher investment in waterways and, as part of a package of reforms, are willing to pay a higher rate into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund,” said Mike Toohey, president of The Waterways Council Inc., which represents navigation interests. “Current attitudes are as shifting as the sands of a desert,” he said of the mood in Congress.

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