New waterways plan begins to navigate through Congress

Congress has begun taking a look at the new capital development plan that the inland industry hopes will vastly improve how waterways infrastructure is maintained, operated and modernized over the next 20 years. Hearings on the 2010 Water Resources Development Act began last week in the House and Senate and included discussions about the proposal, developed jointly by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the inland industry.

A year in the making, the plan would make key improvements in how the Corps evaluates waterways projects so that the process is more efficient and cost-effective. To show its commitment to reform, the industry has agreed to an increase in the diesel fuel tax that it pays to finance waterways construction projects.

As Stephen Little, president of Crounse Corp., a towboat and barge operator in Paducah, Ky., told the House hearing: “With the plan, significant modernization of the inland waterway system will occur. Without the plan, necessary achievable progress completing lock and dam and channel improvement projects will languish, dangerously threatening our nation’s well being.”

Response on Capitol Hill has so far been positive, as lawmakers realize the need for reform and appear to welcome this initiative as a solution. “I think your report, from my knowledge of it, is an outstanding piece of work,” Rep. Brian Baird, D-WA, said at the House hearing. “You have got a long-term time frame. You have got a reasonable expenditure, a clear public benefit and a mechanism to pay for it.”

As the U.S. re-evaluates how it finances its waterways, it’s interesting to note how other countries finance their inland systems. In the UK, for example, it’s a mix of tolls, licenses and regional and federal funds.

There’s no concept of 50/50 federal/industry financing as we have here. Major infrastructure improvements would be financed through a mixture of federal and regional funds, according to John Dodwell, chairman of the Commercial Boat Operators Association in London.

Also, users of the country’s freight non-tidal inland waterways (waters above the locks that keep out the tides) pay a toll per ton of cargo, multiplied by the distance covered. On tidal inland waterways (estuaries with no locks on main channels like the Thames River), there’s no formal charge but a vessel has to be licensed, paying an annual registration fee to the port authority.

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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