WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Legislation that would more than double the money available each year to fix the nation's crumbling locks and dams could be introduced as early as this week. It also would raise for the first time in 17 years the tax that barge operators pay to support the river infrastructure projects, a tax increase the industry is supporting.
The measure would not impose tolls on barges moving through locks, an idea the barge industry has successfully fought for more than 70 years, and would make taxpayers bear more of the cost burden for projects.
The legislation, to be introduced by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., would implement recommendations that a task force composed of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel and industry officials made in 2010 to clean up an $8 billion backlog of projects. The backlog, caused in part by piecemeal funding from Congress that is limited to about $170 million a year, has increased the costs and delayed completion of projects nationwide.
Corps officials say delays put more pressure on the antiquated facilities and increase the chances that a debilitated lock or dam will fail, an event they say would have widespread economic consequences. The potential impacts include higher electricity costs, water supply issues and increased congestion on highways as trucks would be required to deliver goods normally moved on rivers.
Nearly 60 percent of the more than 200 locks on the nation's rivers are more than 50 years old, which is how long they were built to last. Several of them are in Western Pennsylvania, including the locks and dam on the Monongahela River at Elizabeth that were completed in 1907.
To speed the replacement of at-risk facilities, the legislation would provide $380 million in funding for 20 years. Most of the new money would be provided by taxpayers. The measure also would increase the diesel fuel tax that barge operators pay to support those projects to 26 cents. It has been 20 cents per gallon since 1995.
The gas tax generates about $85 million each year for lock and dam projects, money that is matched by taxpayers.
"We're willing to pay more. Our customers are willing to pay more," said Michael Toohey, president of the Waterways Council, an Arlington, Va., group that represents barge operators, shippers and related groups.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Whitfield said he hopes to introduce the bill this week.
Mr. Toohey said four members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee -- two Republicans and two Democrats -- have agreed to cosponsor Mr. Whitfield's measure: U.S. Rep. Timothy Johnson, R-Ill.; U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill.; U.S. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn.; and U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo.
Mr. Duncan's office confirmed he is interested in cosponsoring the proposal but declined further comment.
A spokesman for Mr. Johnson said the Illinois Republican supports the measure because locks on Illinois rivers are in horrible shape, industry backs the tax increase and the measure includes reforms to curb hefty cost overruns that have plagued Corps projects.
Despite the bipartisan support Mr. Whitfield has received, his proposal faces considerable hurdles. It comes as partisan wrangling over the federal budget deficit and the no-tax increase credo of conservative Republicans makes it difficult to fund big-ticket projects. Mr. Whitfield and his two Republican backers have signed the no tax increase pledge sponsored by Grover Norquist of the Americans for Taxpayer Reform.
Industry advocates said even though they view the diesel tax as a user fee, some members of Congress hesitate supporting an increase.
"Anytime something comes up, it's 'remember the pledge,' " Mr. Toohey said, adding that lawmakers tell him, "You need to go talk to Grover Norquist."
There is also opposition to Mr. Whitfield's measure because it would limit use of revenue generated by the diesel tax to new locks and lock repairs costing $100 million or more. Less expensive lock repairs and all dam projects would be paid for by taxpayers.
Josh Sewell, a policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that would gut the current cost-sharing formula, which uses diesel tax revenue for dams as well as locks. He called Mr. Whitfield's proposal "an affront to the cost-sharing requirement that undergirds the inland waterway system."
Mr. Sewell noted that the river transport industry pays none of the costs of operating and maintaining locks and dams. The Corps spends about $550 million annually maintaining 11,000 miles of inland waterways.
"There's zero cost share for maintenance once these projects are built," Mr. Sewell said.
Some are proposing tolls as a way for industry to shoulder more of the costs. In the proposed budget he sent to Congress in February, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, proposed raising $1.1 billion over 10 years by charging barge operators tolls for using locks. Locking fees have been proposed since the 1930s, but Congress has never approved them.
"We are adamantly opposed to a lockage fee," said Greg Guenther, a Belleville, Ill., farmer who was among the corn growers in Washington, D.C., last week to lobby for Mr. Whitfield's bill and other farm legislation.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, is concerned that Mr. Whitfield's proposal "shifts a lot of the financial burden onto the federal government."
"Clearly, the way that we currently fund waterways projects isn't working, and we need to find a better solution," he said.
Len Boselovic: email@example.com or 412-263-1941.