Inland waterways funding plan shot down

I’ve been covering Washington for about 30 years, and there are still times when I’m at a loss for words in explaining how our government works.

One such stellar moment occurred last week when I learned that officials of the Obama administration — more specifically the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) dictating to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — rejected a badly needed plan to reform the way the nation’s inland waterways are funded.

Waterways industry leaders, working jointly with Corps officials, spent 18 months developing a long-term plan that would speed up the delivery of waterways projects and raise more revenue for the trust fund that pays for new construction projects. The towing industry, which is the principal commercial user of the nation’s inland waterway system, had agreed to a tax increase to provide more money for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which pays for 50 percent of new construction projects.

The news of the administration’s opposition to the plan actually came in December in a letter sent to Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The letter was received a few days before Christmas and well after Rep. Oberstar lost his reelection bid. What lousy timing. To add insult to injury, the letter was never sent to anyone in the inland industry that worked on the development plan.

Signed by Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for Civil Works, who heads the Corps, the letter outlined a series of objections to the plan. This came as a big surprise to industry leaders, who believed they were on the right track with the plan, having not heard of any earlier objections. In fact on several occasions, Darcy appeared before the Inland Waterways Users Board during the plan’s deliberations and indicated general support.

In addition, the Corps had dispatched several of its top officials to work on the joint government-industry plan.

Somehow things went very wrong. Could the industry have done better by anticipating the rejection? Was their lobbying campaign in Congress and with the administration as effective as it could have been? Could the administration have been more open with their concerns and not deliver them just before Christmas when no one was home? And why didn’t the administration offer any alternatives to its objections?

This has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. The Board responded on Jan. 18 with an angry letter to Darcy, pointing out the irony in her arguments and their disappointment with the rejection. The board also rightly raised questions of integrity and faith in government. They questioned why anyone in the private sector would want to collaborate with the government in the future given the experience of this development plan.

“Despite President Obama’s promise of a more transparent and collaborative federal government, based on this experience, we are left with little more than a fuller understanding of why so many Americans distrust their government,” the letter said.

The Board asked the administration to reconsider its objections. Let’s hope that federal officials will reconsider, and that the industry will lick its wounds and come back to the table.

Compromise will be necessary in order to advance many of the plan’s key features, and each side must do a better job communicating (the industry was strangely silent on the rejection, not sharing it publicly for more than a month). Timing is also crucial, as the window for action in Congress is short given the press of other business and the politically charged atmosphere in Washington.

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About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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