Environmental and taxpayer groups are mobilizing again on Capitol Hill to oppose a waterways financing plan favored by the barge industry.
Although not as well organized and funded as the barge industry, these groups are meeting with congressmen and their staffs and distributing documents that refute barge industry claims that the plan will more effectively finance improvements to the aging inland lock and dam system. Green groups launched their opposition last spring after the plan was released.
Opponents argue that the proposal shifts too much financial burden to taxpayers and would take money away from environmental protection programs. Citing some of the same arguments, the Obama administration rejected the plan but promised to work on another solution. None has yet emerged.
“The industry must come back and get creative and shift the subsidy in the other direction,” said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “If they would [agree to]contribute to the operation and maintenance of the system, it would have more appeal. Everyone across the country is being asked to make sacrifices. The industry must put more skin in the game.”
Meanwhile, the barge industry, led by the Waterways Council Inc. (WCI), is meeting with lawmakers to seek support for the plan’s approval. The industry says that the plan is sound, contains reasonable proposals developed over 18 months of deliberations, and has the backing of more than 200 users of the waterways system.
“The state of our infrastructure is such that we can’t sit on the sidelines,” said Cornel Martin, president and CEO of WCI. WCI has hired a team of Washington lobbyists, including former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux.
“The industry has great power and success in Congress, so we take their efforts very seriously,” said Brad Redlin, director of agriculture programs at the Izaak Walton League. “We will counter the barge industry by mobilizing organizations along the nation’s river banks that share our concerns.” He said the group’s representatives met with lawmakers in March but does not maintain a full-time lobbying force in Washington, D.C.
As they did last year, green groups are distributing information that explain how Uncle Sam subsidizes the barge industry, how cost benefits of new locks along the Upper Mississippi River are not substantiated, and that call into question claims that barges are far more fuel efficient than other transport modes. All are based on studies done by environmental groups.
Redlin said approving the financing plan as written would be a “test case” for the seriousness of Congress to reduce the deficit and cut federal spending. “If Congress acts to shift these funds to taxpayers, it would be an indictment on the budget hawks of this Congress,” he said.