The Kentucky lawmaker proposing major changes in how improvements to the nation's deteriorating locks and dams are funded has received the Golden Fleece award from a taxpayer watchdog group.
Taxpayers for Common Sense called legislation introduced last month by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., a "riverboat ripoff." The measure would further subsidize the barge industry, which is the most subsidized form of transportation, the group said.
"Even if the country wasn't staring down the barrel of a $1.2 trillion deficit, this would be a preposterous proposal," said Ryan Alexander, president of the taxpayer group.
Proponents say the measure would help clear up an $8 billion backlog of river projects caused by inefficient funding and chronic cost overruns at lock and dam projects, which are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The backlog includes eliminating a 105-year-old lock and dam on the Monongahela River at Elizabeth and building new locks up river at Charleroi. The Mon project was approved by Congress in 1992 at an estimated cost of $750 million and was expected to be completed in 2004. Corps officials say the project now will cost at least $1.4 billion and be completed in 2024 at the earliest.
More than 200 locks and related dams on the nation's rivers move about 550 million tons of coal, grain and other commodities annually. A Corps official recently told Congress the average lock has been around for 60 years, 10 years longer than the systems were built to last. Corps and industry officials warn the prolonged failure of a lock or dam would bring river traffic to a halt, shifting coal and other goods from barges to trucks and railroads. That would increase traffic congestion, raise costs to shippers and could cause electricity prices to increase.
In a statement released by his office, Mr. Whitfield said modernizing locks and dams will spur economic development and keep the country competitive. He said something must be done to fund the improvements and eliminate waste. The proposal "is a starting point for that debate," the statement said.
Former U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., created the Golden Fleece award in 1975 to highlight wasteful government spending. The first recipient was the National Science Foundation for commissioning an $84,000 study of why people fall in love. Mr. Proxmire later served as honorary chairman of Taxpayers for Common Sense and asked the Washington, D.C., group to manage the award.
Mr. Whitfield's bill would raise a tax that barge operators pay on diesel fuel to 26 cents a gallon. The tax has been 20 cents per gallon since 1995. It raises about $85 million annually for lock and dam projects, money that is matched by taxpayers.
However, the measure would restrict use of the tax revenue to lock projects, shifting the cost of repairing or replacing dams to taxpayers. Taxpayers already pay the $550 million that the Corps spends annually to operate and maintain locks and dams.
Mr. Whitfield's proposal would burden taxpayers with an additional $200 million in expenses annually, the taxpayer group said.
Meanwhile, the Waterways Council, an Arlington, Va., group representing barge operators, port authorities and related groups, criticized the taxpayer group as "extremists [who] offer no plan but rhetorical excess." Industrial plants, municipal water authorities, recreational boaters and other groups benefit from dams, yet pay nothing to build or maintain them, the council said.
The Waterways Council said Mr. Whitfield's legislation is a bipartisan measure that would eliminate waste and promote jobs.
The budget message that President Barack Obama, a Democrat, sent to Congress in February proposed raising $1.1 billion over 10 years by charging barge operators tolls to go through locks. Locking fees have been proposed since the 1930s, but Congress has never approved them.
Mr. Whitfield's bill has been sent to both the House Transportation and Infrastructure and the Ways and Means committees. The measure is cosponsored by 12 other House members, none of them from Western Pennsylvania.
No hearings have been scheduled.businessnews
Len Boselovic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1941. First Published April 27, 2012 12:45 AM