Civil Works transformation?

In the fairy tale “Alice in Wonderland,” Alice eats and drinks mysterious substances to alter her size to become small enough to fit through the keyhole of the door to Wonderland.

Like Alice, the Corps Civil Works navigation program faces a similar downsizing dilemma. At the National Waterways Conference 2013 Legislative Summit held in March in Washington, D.C., the gist of the presentations was that the Civil Works program is no longer deemed to be financially sustainable even before other budget cuts under sequestration. An example of the funding dilemma for waterways operations and maintenance is the potential reduction in lock operations hours on lower density waterways. The goal appears to be to use savings in lock operations to fund maintenance.  

There was similar talk about the need to make hard investment choices that would result in a smaller number of projects. The overall theme was an acknowledgement of the obvious — there is too much aging infrastructure with looming capital reinvestment needs, and it exceeds existing capital resources. There is an estimated $250 billion of navigation infrastructure that is aging and cannot be adequately maintained without an increase in operations and maintenance funds.  

Consequently, a number of unspecified financing options appear to be open for consideration under the umbrella of public-private financing. Naturally, details were not provided of just how the waterways funds would be increased or augmented by non-traditional sources of public sector financing. Financing options other than taxes and fees are typically not the expertise of government planners.

It appears that unless the waterways can somehow shrink its operations and maintenance needs, like Alice fitting through the keyhole of the door to Wonderland, continued hand wringing and pondering over what to do next will persist. There appears to be no new ideas, only hindsight highlighted by a remark by a congressman that the “Inland Waterways Trust Fund is broken.” 

How to fix the trust fund was not on the agenda at the summit.

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