Bipartisanship leads to waterways victory

 

Just when you were ready to give up on Congress, lawmakers have shown that they actually can do something useful for the country. And in doing so, demonstrate that Republicans and Democrats can indeed work together.

Last week negotiators from the House and Senate put the final touches on a long-overdue piece of legislation that will set a new policy and funding direction for the nation’s water resources — from waterways, ports, dams and levees to municipal drinking water. It is expected to get a final vote from the House today and the Senate tomorrow. The president is expected to sign the bill.

The Water Resources Reform Act of 2014 (WRRDA) is a key legislative document for the inland towing and barge industry, as it makes policy reforms that could finally bring the nation’s crumbling lock and dam system out of the dark ages.

Sure, the legislation is seven years overdue. But what the heck, to the relief of all involved, it is done, and stakeholders, members of Congress and the Obama administration can pat themselves on the back and heave a collective sigh of relief that American voters will finally be happy with something positive that the government has done for them. Politicians need a few notches in the legislative belt in advance of the November mid-term elections.

As a result of this legislation, we might see some major improvements over the next few years in how the nation’s aging and increasingly failing lock and dam system is funded, managed and modernized.

A change in the funding formula means projects like Olmsted on the Ohio might finally get done, and others in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kentucky might suddenly sprint toward completion. It might take three years, not 15, for the Corps to complete a study. The private sector might get involved with projects, injecting more efficiency and effectiveness. U.S. harbors might get dredged in preparation for those big ships coming through the expanded Panama Canal. And a hurricane protection project might finally get done that would protect 200,000 people in two vulnerable parishes in Louisiana.

But the congratulations, although deserved, will be short lived. The heavy lifting now starts to put the real teeth in these reforms. Congress and the administration must agree on how to fund all these authorizations and reforms. And for more long-term assurance that the cost-sharing fund that now finances new construction and major rehab of locks and dams gets new revenues, Congress must approve a 9-cent increase in the diesel fuel tax paid by barge owners. That is part of a separate national tax reform bill recently introduced in the House.

Mike Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council, says congressional support for WRRDA and the tax increase plan is strong. “The outlook for our inland waterways is bright,” he told reporters in a conference call last week.

Let’s hope he’s right, and that the bipartisanship can be sustained into this next important phase.

 

 

 

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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