Top Corps Brass Share Frustrations Over Waterways

The Waterways Journal
19 October 2015

There is no question that inland waterways stakeholders have been frustrated for decades over government’s unwillingness to finance waterway infrastructure improvements and proper maintenance. But now we learn from the October 8 issue of the Waterways Council Inc.’s newsletter Capitol Currents that the stakeholders are not the only ones frustrated.

Maj. Gen. John Peabody, who retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in August after 35 years of military service, authored a revealing article in Capitol Currents that explained some of the frustrations the Corps faces in trying to modernize both the nation’s infrastructure and the Corps itself.

What Peabody and most likely other Corps officials have in common with inland waterways stakeholders (particularly organizations that work tirelessly to spread the word about how important waterways are to the U.S.) is a great appreciation for our waterways and water transport despite their present condition. According Peabody’s Capitol Currents article, “The United States is the continental maritime nation. No other nation has even a small fraction of the natural or developed access to waterborne transportation, whether by ocean, Great Lakes, or river system, as this nation.“

It is prudent to ask at this point: How is it that administration after administration has permitted this marvelous transportation advantage that we have to deteriorate? Believe it or not, the same question is being asked by transportation officials in other countries, which are not so blessed. Year after year we see (even in our own WJ reports) that vessels are being shipped from the U.S. to South American countries that are busy at work improving their waterways.

Since we all agree in the matter of how important inland waterways are to the U.S., what are we going to do about it? According to Peabody, much of the criticism of the Corps about civil works is not really justified. In fairness to waterway stakeholders, their criticism is based on decades of disappointment about government financial support for the system as it has continued to deteriorate.

We can attest to the fact that the Corps has tried repeatedly to work with the Office of Management and Budget people, but their efforts have often been ignored. We think, in fact, that while the Corps understands totally the importance of our waterways system, the agency, too, has been frustrated by the lack of financing forthcoming to shore up the program. Now being retired, it is easier for Peabody to vent those frustrations.

According to Peabody, “Having built out a fantastic array of civil works projects valued at nearly $300 billion, the Corps mitigated most of the most egregious flood risks and developed the most important waterborne transportation needs. Reacting largely to congressional direction, the Corps’ historic focus was to build out infrastructure; operating it was a derivative task. But over time the Corps transitioned from primarily a construction agency to an operation and program management agency, but it has retained its cultural affinity for construction.”

Peabody wrote, “This must change, for a very simple reason the unforgiving fact confronting the Corps is that during the 20th century, the nation asked it to build out and operate more water resource infrastructure than the nation in the 21st century is willing to resource to properly maintain. A general national benign neglect regarding infrastructure combined with shifting resource priorities toward entitlement spending, have resulted in routinely under-resourced infrastructure that is inexorably decaying.”

The bottom line is that since 2013 the Corps has changed its approach. Gen. Peabody believes it will take time, but eventually things will improve. It is to be noted that the Corps, as he explains it, does not control its own destiny; it is answerable to so many disparate forces from both within and outside of the federal government. As Peabody and other Corps officials have explained numerous times, the Corps can only follow the dictates of Congress. We have always acknowledged that fact and believe the Corps has supported inland waterways within limitations it cannot control.

Peabody wrote, “Much of the frustration with the pace of progress on ‘Corps transformation’ reflects an inaccurate belief that the Corps is an independent entity able to direct its own destiny.” He concludes that the “single best way to ‘transform’ the Corps is to efficiently fund projects for execution, and to make hard choices about which projects the nation will no longer subsidize.”

Peabody expresses the opinion, if we understand him, that the Corps is on the right track now and that we will eventually see improvements.

We hope he’s right. And we hope that the administration gets the message. Perhaps our 21st century government will be willing to finance inland waterways, which are probably the most profitable undertaking the U.S government has ever undertaken.