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Locks bill may relieve funding loss from Olmsted overrun

Illinois Correspondent

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Efforts to create funding for crucial lock and dam repairs on the Inland Waterways System may have received a boost when U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) called a press conference at the Chickamauga Lock and Dam on the Tennessee River Oct. 24 to announce his American Waterworks Act proposal.
Alexander’s bill seeks to relieve the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and Inland Waterways Trust Fund, paid into by a 20 cents-per-gallon fuel tax on barge operators, of their burden of funding the repair of the Olmsted Lock on the Ohio River. He said removing the obligation of paying for Olmsted repairs from these funds would free up much-needed revenue that could be used to address inland lock and dam construction and rehabilitation across the country.
“We have two trust funds to deal with waterway infrastructure like the Chickamauga Lock, and neither of them works,” Alexander said. “The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund collects a lot of money, but it doesn’t spend it well.

“The Inland Waterways Trust Fund doesn’t collect much money, but spends it well. This bill would fix the way our ports and waterways are funded so that we can meet the challenges they face.”
Olmsted Lock repairs, originally estimated to cost $775 million, have absorbed nearly all of the Army Corps of Engineers’ maintenance budget. The project, authorized in 1988, has cost more than $3 billion to date, with another decade of work to be done, Alexander said.

His legislation would free money by ending the requirement that trust fund monies must be spent on Olmsted, instead diverting more costs to the federal government. A spokesperson for the St. Louis-based Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI), Debra Colbert, said it supports the bill.

“WCI applauds Senator Alexander’s forward-thinking approach to modernizing the nation’s critically important locks, dams and ports system. The waterways system provides for growth in American jobs and exports, relieves highway congestion, benefits our environment and allows the U.S. to be ready for the expansion of the Panama Canal,” Colbert said.

The proposal also includes full federal funding for harbor maintenance and construction programs to expand harbors to accommodate larger vessels after the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2014, among other aspects of the act.

While the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. is still reviewing key elements of Alexander’s plan, Field Services Director Jim Tarmann said, “We knew the Senate had great interest in putting together a package which would marry key components to fix the funding issues related to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.”

He added the legislation could be “a significant step forward” in preparing U.S. ports and waterways to take full advantage of the Panama Canal expansion.

But Scott Sigman, Illinois Soybean Assoc. transportation and infrastructure lead, indicated that Alexander’s bill may not pass the muster of current politics.

“I think (Alexander) is biting off more than the political will is currently willing to chew,” he said, “but it is a great first step to start the dialogue and discussion. The way the bill process looks, what comes out the other end won’t likely look very much like the initial proposal.”

He is encouraged by bipartisan support for the American Waterways Act, but “there are bigger fish to fry with broader public appeal,” he said, regarding current bills in front of Congress. “Something needs to be done (about lock and dam funding), and at least there is a proposal on the table,” he added.

Alexander’s bill would include an increase in the fuel tax paid by vessels using the Inland Waterways System. Any infrastructure project with a benefit ratio of 3-to-1 or greater would automatically be authorized under the bill.

According to Environment & Energy Daily, an Alexander aide indicated the senator intends to offer portions of the new bill as amendments to a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) currently before Congress, if WRDA moves forward. If not, the aide said, Alexander’s bill “offers an alternative pathway for authorizing projects.”