House makes proposal for waterways projects

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A bipartisan group of congressional members has introduced legislation that would change the way billions of dollars of water infrastructure projects are authorized and financed.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Blair, and other supporters said the proposal would reduce delays in completing lock and dam, harbor, flood control and other waterways projects. They said the measure also would promote fiscal responsibility and economic growth.

"This is a new way forward ... for America's critical infrastructure," Mr. Shuster said Wednesday at a Capitol Hill news conference. "It's not a regional issue. It's a national priority."

The proposal is the Republican-controlled House's response to legislation approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate in May.

Both proposals seek ways to break a backlog of projects that are years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. The projects include improvements to locks and dams on the lower Monongahela River that were authorized by Congress in 1992 but that are not expected to be completed until 2033. Originally expected to cost $750 million, the price tag is now estimated at $1.7 billion.

More than half of the 200-plus locks and related dams overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were built more than 50 years ago, which is how long they were expected to last. The older infrastructure breaks down more often and is costly to maintain. Unscheduled lock outages cause lengthy delays in moving the 550 million tons of grain, coal and other commodities shipped on the nation's rivers each year.

Fixing the antiquated infrastructure would make the nation more competitive and increase exports and jobs, supporters of the measure said.

The House proposal would shift more responsibility to federal taxpayers for completing a long-delayed, over-budget lock and dam project on the Ohio River near Olmsted, Ill. Like the Mon River work and other major Corps projects, half of the Olmsted project is funded by Congress and the other half through a diesel fuel tax paid by barge operators.

The House proposal would limit funding for Olmsted from the diesel tax to 25 percent while the Senate version would shift the entire burden to taxpayers. Both versions would free up additional funding for the Lower Mon work and other projects that have been delayed by the Olmsted project.

The Senate measure would increase the diesel tax for the first time since 1995, from 20 cents per gallon to 29 cents. The House proposal does not address the tax because revenue measures in that chamber must originate in its Ways and Means Committee.

"We need the revenue component to build the projects that are already authorized," said Michael Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council, an Arlington, Va., group that represents barge operators, shippers and other river interests.

While he believes the House proposal falls short in some regards, Mr. Toohey said it is a good, bipartisan product. "I expect it will pass by a good, solid positive vote in the House because of that," he said.

If the House approves the bill, differences between that and the Senate version would have to be worked out by a conference committee.

The House proposal would allow states, municipalities and nonprofits to provide funding for operating and maintaining locks and dams, Mr. Toohey said. It would also authorize up to 15 pilot projects funded by public-private partnerships.

That could benefit the Lower Mon project, which is important to Western Pennsylvania's economy, said a committee aide who helped draft the legislation.

The bill would tighten the amount of time and money that can be spent on environmental reviews of projects. That would reduce costs and enable projects to start sooner, committee aides said. Reviews by the agencies involved would be conducted simultaneously rather than piecemeal and would have to be completed within three years at a cost of less than $3 million. Some studies have taken more than 15 years and cost significantly more than $3 million, the aides said.

An analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that contends the barge industry is one of the most heavily subsidized forms of transportation, said a quick review of the House proposal indicates that it contains some encouraging features but may not address the serious issues facing Congress.

"It does appear not to have earmarks. They appear to have kept their word on that," Joshua Sewell said.

But the $12 billion in projects the measure would de-authorize were approved between 1943 and 1962, he said.

"It leads us to believe they really aren't making the tough decisions," Mr. Sewell said.

businessnews

Tracie Mauriello contributed. Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.


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