New bill may open debate on waterways funding

Legislation introduced on March 31 in the U.S. House by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., would carry out changes outlined in the Capital Development Plan, a joint industry-government initiative to reform the way river navigation projects are funded and evaluated.

Whether or not the plan is adopted, and many believe it faces insurmountable hurdles in this election year, introduction of the bill will hopefully attract much-needed attention on the inadequate level of investment in the nation’s river infrastructure.

Hopefully this will spark a serious discussion among Washington policymakers on how best to fund, operate and maintain the nation’s aging lock and dam system that is crumbling and in danger of a major failure. It’s high time, because Congress and the administration have been hiding shamelessly behind the buzzwords of deficit reduction, tax increases and federal budget cutting, using them as an excuse for inaction, silence and delay.

Mike Steenhoef, executive director of the Iowa-based Soybean Transportation Coalition offered an interesting perspective at last week’s National Waterways Conference annual legislative summit in Washington. He represents a key segment of shippers who count on a reliable waterways system to move their products to market, and is a former aide to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, so his comments come with an insight into the legislative process.

He said the CDP, although hitting all the right notes for reform, has been slow to gain traction on Capitol Hill and within the administration because it contains some politically sensitive proposals on tax increases and federal spending.

“We’re not getting a response from the executive branch and a limited response from legislators. That tells you that people don’t think it’s a credible approach. The message is that it’s admirable that the industry wants to [further]tax itself, but you’re asking [the federal government]to spend a lot more.”

He told the legislative summit that if supporters believe that there would be money in the future for waterways investments, then the CDP should be pursued. But if the conclusion is that tight budgets will rule the day for years to come, then a new approach is needed.

Attention might be better focused on preserving and maintaining the existing system rather than building and expanding it.

“We need to be open to alternatives,” he said. “It’s time to have that discussion.”

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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