Before highways existed, Pittsburgh was founded because rivers were the natural way of transportation through the wilderness. The city of three rivers still gets it. Today Pittsburgh is the second largest inland port in the United States, and the rivers remain a mainstay of the economy.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania gets it, too. On Friday, he was at Station Square championing the repair of aging locks and dams, without which the barge traffic cannot flow. This region has 23 locks and dams and they are among the oldest in the nation. Mr. Casey is proposing a bill in Congress that would modernize the inland waterways system, bringing a payoff for Pittsburgh and the nation.
What is being proposed is not just throwing money at the system, although greater federal investment is part of it. The measure -- to be known as the Reinvesting in Vital Economic Rivers and Waterways Act of 2013, or the RIVER Act -- makes cost-efficient reforms in project management and would prioritize navigation projects.
It would also raise the inland waterways user fee, which is a fuel tax paid by the barge and towing industry. It would be raised from 20 cents per gallon to 29 cents. What makes this tax increase different from any other is that the industry itself backs it. The executive council of the Waterways Council Inc., which lobbies for the industry, voted unanimously to support Sen. Casey's legislation.
"The RIVER Act 2013 represents a new approach to meet the long-standing, recognized need for efficient delivery and timely completion of critical navigation projects and sustainable funding for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund," the Waterways Council said in a statement. The board said the legislation would realize a sustainable annual appropriation of $380 million, a significant portion of which is paid for by commercial users of the system.
At a time when the push is on to reduce federal budgets, some will ask whether the nation can afford such a plan. The truth is that it can't afford not to do something. The waterways provide an efficient and environmentally friendly means of transportation -- and the industry is prepared to see taxes raised on itself to pay to keep the system flowing. Sen. Casey gets it. Congress must get it, too.