Bill Would Boost River Transit Funding
16 May 2014
By Len Boselovic
Long-delayed work on Monongahela River locks and dams could get a
boost from a proposal to authorize an additional $105 million
annually for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects. Congress is
expected to approve the legislation next week and it is likely to
be signed by President Barack Obama, a river industry official
told reporters during a Friday conference call.
House and Senate negotiators this week resolved differences
between versions of bills that were overwhelmingly approved
earlier by each chamber. While the compromise does not provide
actual funding, it specifies how money appropriated by Congress
should be spent.
Work on locks and dams at Braddock, Elizabeth and Charleroi that
was authorized in 1992 has been delayed because of a higher
priority project 600 miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh
that has been plagued by cost overruns and constructions delays.
Half of the money for the projects comes from a trust fund backed
by a tax that barge and tow boat operators pay on the diesel fuel
they consume. The federal government picks up the other half.
Replacing locks and dams near Olmsted, Ill., has claimed the
majority of the $85 million the diesel fuel tax generates each
year as well as the matching federal funds. The conference
committee measure would decrease the industry's funding
obligations for Olmsted from 50 percent to 15 percent.
Shifting more of the project's burden to taxpayers would provide
an estimated $105 million annually for work on the Lower Mon and
other projects, said Michael Toohey, president and CEO of the
Waterways Council, an industry group that represents barge and tow
operators, port administrators and other water interest groups.
A watchdog group objects to putting more of the burden on
"It's a dangerous precedent for abandoning cost-sharing on every
project," said Joshua Sewell of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Congress approved a change in the Olmsted funding formula for just
this year, making the federal government responsible for providing
75 percent of the money.
The $1.7 billion Mon River project was the biggest beneficiary of
the shift, receiving $74.7 million this fiscal year compared to $1
million last year.
The legislation also permits private groups to provide money to
the Corps for expediting permit approvals, accelerating studies of
water-related projects, funding construction projects, and
operating and maintaining Corps facilities.
That provision could help private groups that want to expand
operating hours at locks and dams on the Upper Allegheny River.
It also would authorize increased funding to improve ports,
environmental projects and other work overseen by the Corps.
Mr. Toohey expects the House to approve the measure Tuesday
followed by a favorable Senate vote Wednesday.
"I suspect [the White House is] not going to object to this," he
Missing from the legislation is an industry-backed proposal to
increase the diesel tax from 20 cents a gallon to 26 or 29 cents a
Mr. Toohey expects that measure will be approved later this year.
He said the 300 or so companies that pay the tax support the
increase, as do their customers.
A 9-cent increase would provide an additional $40 million, which
would be matched by $40 million in taxpayer funds, he said.
More than half of the 200-plus locks and related dams overseen by
the Corps are more than 50 years old.
Western Pennsylvania has some of the oldest water infrastructure
in the country.
The older facilities are more expensive to maintain and break down
more often, causing lengthy delays in moving coal, grain and other
commodities on the nation's rivers.
Len Boselovic: email@example.com or 412-263-1941.
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