Congress may free funds for locks and dams in Western Pennsylvania

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River industry officials believe a Congress gridlocked by partisan bickering soon will approve legislation providing more taxpayer funding for water infrastructure projects, including aging locks and dams on Western Pennsylvania's rivers.

Their optimism follows overwhelming passage Wednesday of a water resources bill by the House -- its first big bill since the end of a 16-day partial government shutdown. The Senate approved similar bipartisan legislation in May. Differences between the two measures must be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee.

Proponents of the measures say they will provide more funding, eliminate delays in getting projects approved and built, and allow for more public-private partnerships to address a $60 billion backlog of lock and dam, harbor, ports, flood control and other projects overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers.

"My expectation is they will have a bill on the president's desk before Christmas," said Michael Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council, which represents barge operators, shippers and other river interests.

The industry group said the House measure will "create American jobs, increase exports, and keep our nation competitive in world markets."

Funding shortfalls have contributed to lengthy delays and costly overruns at many Corps projects, including replacing locks and dams on the Monongahela River at Braddock, Charleroi and Elizabeth, where Corps officials warn a 106-year-old dam could collapse. That would close the river to barges.

The Lower Mon project, authorized by Congress at a cost of $750 million, was supposed to be completed in 2004. It is now forecast to be finished in 2033 at a cost of $1.7 billion.

The work is funded on a 50-50 basis by taxpayers and barge operators, who pay a tax on the diesel fuel they use. The formula makes about $170 million available annually for major lock and dam projects, but nearly all of that has been going to a higher priority project on the Ohio River near Olmsted, Ill. That work, authorized by Congress in 1988 at an estimated cost of $775 million, is now expected to cost $3.1 billion.

The House and Senate proposals would shift more of the burden for completing the Olmsted work to taxpayers. The House bill would put 75 percent of the costs on the federal government while the Senate would shift the entire expense to taxpayers.

Both measures are opposed by Taxpayers for Common Sense, which says neither will do much to reduce a backlog of Corps projects it estimates at between $60 billion and $80 billion.

"They should absolutely be asking the industry to invest more," said Joshua Sewell, an analyst with the taxpayer group.

Neither measure includes something the barge industry has been asking for: raising the 20-cent per gallon diesel tax that provides the industry's half of the funding for Olmsted and other major projects. An industry group has recommended raising the tax, which hasn't increased since 1995, to 26 or 29 cents per gallon.

The White House has expressed some reservations about the House bill, which was approved by a 417-3 vote. Concerns include provisions shifting more costs to the federal government and streamlining project approvals, something the administration thinks would threaten environmental safeguards.

President Barack Obama has proposed raising $1.1 billion over the next 10 years to fund waterways projects by charging barge operators vessel fees. The idea has been suggested by presidents since Franklin Roosevelt, but Congress and industry have blocked it.

Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.

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