Obama opposes plan to improve waterways infrastructure

In a big blow to inland navigation, the Obama administration has lodged major objections to a long-term investment plan to improve the nation’s inland waterways infrastructure.

Jointly developed by industry and government representatives, the plan would overhaul the way the nation’s waterways infrastructure is funded and managed. The goal is to end years of delays and cost overruns in waterways projects.

In a Dec. 21 letter recently obtained by WorkBoat.com, Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army (Civil Works), outlined four pages of objections. She wrote to former Rep. James Oberstar, former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that the Army Corps of Engineers “has serious concerns with several of the major recommendations” of the plan.

The Corps, she said, does not support the recommendation that nearly all lock rehabilitation work, all construction work of new dams, and all work to replace, modernize, expand or extend existing dams, be exempted from the current federal/industry cost-sharing scheme.

“These recommendations would transfer a significant responsibility from [waterways]users to the general taxpayer,” Darcy wrote. “Such a major shift of costs is inconsistent with the user-pay principle that helps to guide Civil Works investment decisions.”

Darcy also said the Corps objects to a proposed 30 percent to 45 percent increase in the 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax that is now paid by the inland industry into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. That fund pays for half the costs of navigation construction and the federal government pays the rest. “The Army notes that this level of revenue increase would not be sufficient to support efficient investment in the inland waterways,” she wrote.

The administration, she said, “continues to urge consideration of a funding mechanism that is sufficient to finance capital improvements.” In other words, the administration wants to again push the idea of user fees, which have been proposed by previous administrations and rejected by Congress in the past.

Darcy also raised the possibility of financing inland waterways operation and maintenance costs, now borne entirely by Uncle Sam, through a cost-sharing approach with industry.

Darcy’s remarks are big disappointment to the waterways industry, which believed it had developed a solid, thorough plan in a joint industry-government effort that included many officials of the Corps of Engineers. It now appears that industry leaders, working through the Inland Waterways Users Board, will have to go back to the drawing board. Such a setback will likely further delay congressional approval of much-needed reforms.

“The administration has chosen to oppose the plan developed by experts and offers no alternative to maintain and improve this critical segment of our nation’s transportation system,” said Cornel Martin, chairman of the Waterways Council Inc. “But we will continue to work with Congress to address the problem.”

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