What do you get when you take a bunch of nervous politicians, add a potential tax increase, and mix it with an uncertain election? A recipe for frustration and disappointment for the inland barge industry.
It looks like Congress will leave town on Sept. 30 to return home and campaign for the November elections without taking up the Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan. Crafted by a coalition of government and industry stakeholders in the inland waterways system, the plan would prioritize navigation projects and improve the management system so that they are finished on time and within budget — something that is rare in the world of waterways infrastructure.
The recommendations went to Capitol Hill several months ago, and industry leaders have been working hard to muster support for the plan beyond the waterways, including testimony before congressional committees. The goal has been to attach the language to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
But one of the most innovative and avant-garde features of the plan became the reason for its unraveling. The industry agreed to swallow a tax increase in order to improve the financial health of the fund that pays half the cost of new navigation projects. The plan proposes a 30 percent to 45 percent increase in the current 20-cent-per-gallon tax that barge operators pay on diesel fuel.
Even though the tax increase was proposed by the barge industry rather than Congress, lawmakers got skittish. They were afraid that it didn’t matter who proposed it, voting for a tax increase was not something they wanted to have on their records in an election year.
So as the WRDA bill moved through its first hurdle in the House, the Capital Development Plan was not included. The official line was that members needed more time to study the proposal.
This means going back to the drawing board early next year. Industry leaders will have start anew in January and educate a new crop of lawmakers elected in November. They might also face an additional challenge: a switch in leadership from the Democrats to the Republicans, which is becoming more likely in the House.