After years of battling for funding for critical infrastructure projects along the nation’s key commercial waterways, the Waterways Council voiced optimism that this fall could be a turning point.
In a press briefing in Washington Monday, Waterways Council President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Toohey said he's hopeful Congress will move forward with legislation in the fall session that would accomplish two of the council’s longstanding goals with regard to waterway infrastructure.
The first is delinking the Olmsted Lock and Dam project in Illinois from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund – which is half funded by a fuel tax paid by commercial operators – to allow other projects to be completed using the revenue collected in the trust fund.
For years, the Olmsted project has vacuumed up all the money in the trust fund due to significant cost overruns, delaying work on other needed projects. As Toohey emphasized, “every dollar in the trust fund is going to this project.”
The second provision of the potential legislation would be to raise user fees for the trust fund by six to nine cents over the current 20-cent-per-gallon tax. Barge operators have agreed to a hike in the fee to help fund infrastructure they deem critical to their operations.
The council argues that if the Olmsted project is delinked, and if revenue for the trust fund is increased through a higher user fee, other priority projects could be completed within 20 years.
As it stands now, the Army Corps of Engineers’ projected completion dates for the 20 highest priority inland waterway projects (both new construction or major rehabilitations) stretch all the way to 2090.
“Not in my lifetime is the way the program is being run,” Toohey said.
Many of the projects are prioritized to replace aging locks that have already passed their design lifetime. Taking the Olmsted project out of the picture would free up around $850 million for the other projects.
“I’m optimistic we’ll get legislation this year,” Toohey said. “That’s quite a different message than we had a year ago.”
Toohey said he’s optimistic because there has been genuine bipartisan interest in both houses of Congress in passing a bill to address the crumbling inland waterway infrastructure. - Eric Johnson