Will Congress Upgrade River Infrastructure?


SAN ANTONIO (DTN) — Mike Toohey, CEO of the Waterways Council Inc., said in an interview late last week at Commodity Classic that he was once convinced the Water Resources Development Act would be done before the end of last year because the House and Senate bills weren't that far apart.


Toohey and the rest of the inlands waterways industry are still waiting on congressional negotiators to close the deal on WRDA. Upgrading river infrastructure is critical for agriculture given that 60{75f28365482020b1dc6796c337e8ca3e58b9dd590dc88a265b514ff5f3f56c30} of U.S. agricultural exports move through the river system.


The Water Resources Development Act provides authorization for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build, upgrade or repair sea ports, locks and dams in major rivers, wetland projects and other major water infrastructure needs.


The House and Senate both passed comparable bills last year that would require the Corps of Engineers to eliminate projects from its books that have not received funding in over five years or begun construction. The two bills also require the Corps to spend less than three years and $3 million in feasibility studies for any project. For inland waterway projects, both the House and Senate also place more demands on the Corps to keep projects on time.


The House only authorized Army Corps of Engineers projects that had final reports from the Corps' chief engineer. The costs of projects also were offset by eliminating the authorization of $12 billion in other waterway projects that had not advanced enough in the planning stages.


The Senate had a longer list of 15 more projects Senate negotiators want to add to WRDA that do not have final reports. That's a dilemma for House negotiators who assured fellow House members the package would be more limited in size. House and Senate negotiators say they have an agreement on how to balance those differences in the legislation.


The Waterways Council just recently had a fly-in. The barge industry got different messages from senators and House members about the number of differences that still needed to be settled. Principal negotiators indicated last week they felt WRDA could be wrapped up in about two weeks.


Toohey and others want this WRDA bill to deliver more on the promised projects and delivery times than the 2007 legislation. That bill authorized far more in lock-and-dam projects that would be funded by congressional appropriators.


In one of the key decisions, the WRDA bill federalizes the Olmsted Lock and Dam project. The project, which first began construction in 1992, will not be completed until 2024 because of repeated complications trying to construct the dam. Finishing Olmsted also will cost $3.1 billion. The time and cost to develop Olmsted have drained the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.


The Senate bill turned 100{75f28365482020b1dc6796c337e8ca3e58b9dd590dc88a265b514ff5f3f56c30} of the spending on Olmsted over to the Corps of Engineers budget and eliminated the trust fund cost share. The final WRDA bill likely still will require some trust-fund cost-share, but a much lower percentage than the current 50-50 split.


“Freeing up the money from Olmsted allows it to go to other projects on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers,” Toohey said.


The Senate bill proposed spending about $3.4 billion on 27 water resource projects from 2014-2018. The House bill authorized 23 new construction projections costing about $8 billion in federal funds with about $5 billion in state or local match.


Congress needs to spend $220 million to $250 million annually in federal appropriations to assure the construction delivery of all those projects over the next two decades, Toohey said. The omnibus appropriations act was a positive sign in that it included $257.4 million for lock construction and another $163 million dedicated to the Olmsted Dam.


Rick Calhoun, president of Cargill's shipping division, Cargo Carriers, spoke Friday at Commodity Classic session on agricultural shipping challenges. Calhoun, past chairman of the Waterways Council, is familiar in ag and infrastructure circles for testimony and speeches on the need to upgrade America's shipping routes.


“We need to invest in infrastructure to help drive our costs down and allow farmers and business in this country to thrive,” he said.


Calhoun noted other countries are investing heavily in river projects in an attempt to catch the U.S. China is spending $32 billion over the next several years on the Yangtze River as the country continues to improve its infrastructure.


Calhoun notes business investment decisions for major companies such as Cargill are driven heavily by infrastructure investments. “So what kind of signal do you think it sends to companies when it takes us seven years to pass a water resources development bill?” he said. “It's just too long.”


Neither the House nor the Senate version of the bill made changes to the 20-cent-per-gallon diesel user fee paid by towboat operators to fund the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, despite support by the operators to increase the fee to help boost construction projects. However, Toohey praised House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., for proposing a 6-cent per-gallon increase in Camp's major tax overhaul bill. Nearly 40 waterway, shipping, agriculture and other export groups wrote Ways & Means Committee members last September asking the committee to consider such an increase.


Due to the mid-term elections, Camp's tax package likely would not be considered in the House until at least late in the year.

 by Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor


© Copyright 2014 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.

Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp


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