It’s been a frenetic and eventful two weeks in Washington for the waterways, as lawmakers are feeling the heat to find a solution to the nation’s crumbling inland navigation infrastructure.
Representatives from barge and tug companies, ports, agriculture companies and coastal communities converged here for their annual meetings and visits on Capitol Hill. They are telling policymakers about the urgency to fix the current system of financing and delivering waterways projects that has failed to keep the system reliably operating and threatens U.S. trade competitiveness.
And there has been some movement in the right direction, some positive signs that Washington is finally listening.
A bill that would reform how water projects are evaluated and executed, called the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), has taken its first major step with approval by a Senate committee, and several other bills have been introduced in both chambers to improve the nation’s crumbling locks and dams. The severe drought in the Midwest that almost halted barge traffic on parts of the Mississippi River has helped push things along.
Changing the way the Corps of Engineers does business may be the easy part. All the bills propose reforms, and the WRDA bill that is now moving through the Senate is strong on such policy changes. Finding a solution to the funding shortfalls is another matter. The WRDA bill doesn’t address this, leaving it to the finance committees that must review a proposed increase in the barge tax that would help fund inland projects and the appropriations panels that would have to approve actual spending.
The barge industry is putting all its eggs in the basket of the Capital Development Plan, which was developed by a joint committee of industry and the Corps to fix the funding and policy problems. It was proposed two years ago, but has been slow to win support in Congress as it proposes an increase in the fuel tax paid by the barge industry to pay for half the construction costs of inland projects — and more federal spending on certain dam projects. This has drawn fire from tea party Republicans who have pledged to cut spending and oppose tax increases.
At this point, the industry doesn’t have a Plan B should the funding elements of their development plan not make it into law. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, speaking to the Waterways Council Inc. meeting this week, has offered an interesting idea in a bill he has proposed in the Senate: create more public-private partnerships to manage and pay for navigation projects.
Given the budget difficulties and the political climate in Washington, the idea of expanding the role of the private sector in inland navigation is something that really needs to be more seriously explored. Think partnerships with the Corps to plan, design and construct navigation projects and an infrastructure bank for inland navigation that would attract private investment. This could be the new way forward.