I’m still hearing a lot about the fallout from the November midterm elections. While reporting on a story this week for the next issue of WorkBoat, I was surprised to hear how concerned waterways leaders are about how the shakeup in Congress might play out for waterways issues.
They fear a divided Congress will lead to gridlock and deep cuts in programs important to the inland barge industry. These could include much smaller budgets for the Coast Guard and for the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees lock-and-dam modernization and maintenance on the inland waterways. Waterways officials are also concerned about losing several key friends in Congress who were defeated last week — friends who have championed waterway issues over the years.
In addition, the power shift could muddy the waters for congressional approval of the inland waterways capital development plan — which makes much-needed and significant changes in how waterway projects are evaluated and funded. This is because the proposal includes a tax increase on diesel fuel that is paid by the barge industry to fund its share of infrastructure improvements. This tax hike will likely run counter to Republican promises of no tax increases.
Also troubling, according to waterways officials, would be the imposition of across-the-board spending cuts.
Already the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division has advised that as a consequence of inadequate dredging funds in it’s operations and maintenance budget and an inability to rely on supplemental appropriations or reprogramming of funds in the fiscal 2011 budget, it may be forced to restrict navigation along the Lower Mississippi River.
If dredging is suspended or slowed, traffic on the river could be restricted to one way. The economic consequences would be devastating, especially to the Port of New Orleans, and would jeopardize President Obama’s goal to double exports over the next five years.