Sunday, July 8, 2012

Waterway Funding Bill Languishes In Committee

Now that Congress has passed a welcome though wimpy 27 month reauthorization of our nation’s Highway Trust Fund, it’s high time for that body to turn its attention to funding the red headed stepchild of America’s surface transportation system: our navigable waterways. HR 4342, dubbed the “WAVE4 Act,” is a simple 10 page legislative measure that could do just that, if it ever comes off the table of the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where it has languished since March 29.

Cargo moving by water up and down and across America is the least visible and least noticed detail of the surface transportation picture, but it has a big, big central role in the landscape of cargo shipment. And, few citizens ever become aware of the utterly deplorable condition of the infrastructure of our nation’s navigable waterways. Here are some of the cogent facts about cargo moving by water in the U.S.:

There are several methods of evaluating the efficiency of differing modes of cargo movement, but even adjusting for point to point routing differences, the ton miles of bulk cargo moving by water per gallon of fuel consumed is in the same narrow range as rail and road transport. A single 15 barge tow moving up or down America’s navigable waterways can deliver 22,500 tons of bulk cargo – as much as 13,050 semitrailers, each 53 feet long, on the highways, or 3,375 traffic snarling jumbo hopper cars on the rails. In a typical year, 800 million tons of bulk cargo moves by water in the United States. If waterway traffic gets stopped up by failing lock walls or gates, or inoperable dams which don’t maintain navigating water depth, each year that would mean 464 million more trucks on the highways, or 120 million more of those jumbo hopper cars snaking past your local grade crossing at 15 miles per hour. Much of the cargo moving unseen and unheard along the nation’s waterways consists of grain for our food products and coal for our power plants. Imagine if it never gets delivered.

Most of us don’t give a thought to the precious resource we have in a network of lakes and rivers which remain navigable, unless a hurricane spawned flood breaches a levee and drowns New Orleans, or flood protection dams farther upriver fail and submerge hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland in the Midwest. Nevertheless, each day of the week beleaguered tugboat captains face the nasty hazards of stretches of river where lock walls are collapsing without any hope of repair in sight, or century old locks too short for a 15 barge tow require them to break up their barges into smaller units and make multiple passes through already overburdened and equally ancient operating machinery, just to make it to their designated destination.

Oh, yes, the Army Corps of Engineers has a grand 20 year plan to repair and improve our country’s navigable waterways. It was promulgated in 2010 and it is grandly entitled the “Inland Marine Transportation System Capital Projects Business Model.” Problem is, Congress has been far less than grand in funding the model, and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund is so broke as a result, that many lock repair projects can only advance in fits and starts as cash is available, multiplying their cost many times over as contractors on these projects demobilize and remobilize again and again

The simple little bill HR 4342 would do these simple things: 1) require the Corps of Engineers to update its Capital Projects plan annually; 2) require funding of approved construction projects to come half from the Waterways Trust Fund and half from general revenues; and 3) raise the tax on tugboat diesel fuel from 20 cents per gallon to 26 cents per gallon, beginning January 1, 2013. As for that tax increase, the barge and tug operators are lobbying hard in favor of the increase, so they can keep their vessels moving. This little legislative measure also has the support of major bulk cargo shippers, including Cargill, Bunge North America, Valero Energy and Vulcan Materials. The bill, if passed, will increase annual inland waterway lock and dam funding from $160 million per year to $380 million per year – a helpful though still inadequate capital program budget. Without this funding increase, replacement of the Depression era lock and dam at Olmstead, Illinois will, all by itself, bankrupt the Waterways Trust Fund.

Opponents of the bill point out that half the funding for the increased capital budget must come from general revenues, and characterize that as a “taxpayer bailout” of the barge and tug operation industry. They are dead wrong. If the bill does not pass soon, all our air conditioners will go off, and the bread and cereal aisles in our grocery stores will be barren of product. Life is difficult enough already. If you value cool air during this heat wave, and some cereal or toast for breakfast every day, write your Congressman and demand that this little bill be taken off the committee tables, passed through the House, and forwarded to the Senate for immediate action.

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