President’s budget would cut funds for inland waterways, other maritime programs

Less than two months after signing a 2014 omnibus spending bill that gave a big boost to spending on federal maritime and waterways programs, President Obama has proposed a fiscal 2015 budget that would cut back just about all of these gains.

Taking big hits would be funding to support the nation’s inland waterways infrastructure, U.S. ports and the Title XI shipbuilding loan guarantee program.

The budget plan that the president submitted to Congress on March 4 proposes $4.56 billion for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the nation’s inland waterways. This represents a 17 percent cut over the recently enacted level of $5.46  billion approved by Congress in the omnibus bill that is currently funding the federal government through September. In that bill, lawmakers acknowledged the pressing need to keep improving the nation’s waterways infrastructure which for years has suffered from weak federal investment.

In proposing the Corps’ FY 2015 funding plan, Jo-Ellen Darcy, Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works, said the administration was committed to maintaining the nation’s coastal channels and inland waterways, reducing flood control risks and restoring eco-systems. But, she said, “the budget continues to reflect tough choices necessary to put the country in a fiscally sustainable path.”

Darcy said budget assumes enactment of a “user fee” to increase revenue to the nearly depleted  Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which supports half the cost of new inland construction  and major rehabilitation through a 20-cent gallon diesel fuel tax imposed on the barge industry. Budget documents give scant additional information on whether this refers to a six-cent increase proposed in a House tax reform bill, or some other type of fee.

The Corps’ proposed construction budget would bear the brunt of the cuts with a 32 percent drop from the current $1.65 billion to $1.1 billion, according to information provided by the Waterways Council Inc.

On a positive note, two inland projects would get funded: the Olmsted Lock and Dam project on the Ohio River in Illinois at $160 million and the Lower Monongahela River Locks 2, 3 and 4 in Pennsylvania at $9 million.

Also, additional funds were added to progress on the Lower Mon project beyond the $9 million, the Lockport Lock and Dam project on the Illinois River and the Mel Price Lock and Dam on the Upper Mississippi.

But there was no finding recommended for the Kentucky Lock project on the Tennessee River or the Chicamauga Lock Replacement project in Tennessee

Operations and maintenance of the inland river system would also get sliced 10 percent.

These proposals have upset supporters of inland waterways.

“We are extremely disappointed that the administration’s budget yet again fails to live up to the rhetoric and support of jobs and the economy,” Amy Larson, president, The National Waterways Conference, told WorkBoat. “The draconian cuts will mean that the nation’s water resources will continue to decline and decay, negatively impacting our export capability.”

Representatives of America’s seaports also criticized low funding for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, used for port and harbor channel improvements, proposed elimination of EPA’s grant program to reduce diesel emissions, and replacement of the port security grant program with other state and local programs.

“The enthusiasm generated from the president and vice president’s port tours in 2013 and inclusion of the need to upgrade our ports in the president’s January State of the Union address has been dampened by the budget request,” the Association of American Port Authorities said in a statement.

 Also in the president’s request:

  • Full funding ($186 million) for the Maritime Security Program.
  • $3 million for administrative costs of running the Title XI shipbuilding loan guarantee program, down from the $38.5 million Congress provided in the omnibus funding bill to provide new loan guarantees.
  • $11.3 million for state maritime academies, and $16 million for the US Merchant Marine Academy. This compares to $17.7 million for state schools in 2014 and $79.4 million for USMMA.
  • No money to deepen the harbor in Savannah, GA, which had been promised by the administration.

Maritime and waterways interests, as in the past, will look to Congress to reject these cuts and restore funds.

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