Trying to impose user fees or tolls on barge operators is uphill battle

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Airlines pay a fee for landing and other airport services. Trucking companies pay tolls on highways. But barge operators plying the nation's inland waterways -- and using the lock and dam system that is the lifeblood of river commerce -- pay no user fees nor tolls on a system that is in need of urgent repair.

Though presidents and lawmakers since Franklin D. Roosevelt have tried to change that, almost all the money for operating, maintaining, repairing and replacing locks and dams comes from taxpayers. The small sliver that doesn't come from the public is generated by a 20-cent-per-gallon diesel fuel tax barge operators pay, a tax that has not increased in 17 years.

The federal government matches the $85 million or so that the fuel tax generates each year, money that is used for major repairs or to replace locks and dams. Federal taxpayers shoulder the entire cost of operating and maintaining the facilities.

President Barack Obama is the latest of the chief executives who have sought to overhaul the system and impose tolls. The proposed budget he sent to Congress last month includes a plan for imposing tolls for passing through locks, a proposal the White House estimates would raise $1.1 billion over 10 years.

But the barge industry has opposed lock fees in the past and so far Congress has sided with it, according to a July 2011 study by the Congressional Research Service.

The closest Congress came was in 1978, when user fee advocates were seeking to raise about $350 million a year, according to the study. But opposition led to a compromise that included implementing a tax on diesel fuel. The tax took effect in 1980 at the rate of 4 cents per gallon. It rose steadily over the next decade, reaching 11 cents per gallon in 1990. The last increase, in 1995, added 1 cent, raising the rate to 20 cents per gallon, the same rate the industry pays today.

Opponents say the barge industry is not paying enough for the benefits it gets from using locks and dams.

"This is an enormous subsidy to the navigation industry," said Melissa Samet of the National Wildlife Federation.

The barge industry counters that it is not the only one that benefits from locks and dams. It says electric power plants, other industries and municipal water authorities benefit from dams, which create pools of water that companies need to run their operations.

"Without the pools, they're out of business," said William Harder, a former navigation manager in the Corps' Great Lakes and Ohio Rivers division who retired last year.

In addition, recreational boaters also benefit from the facilities, but do not share the cost of maintaining and replacing them, the barge industry argues. It also says lock fees would unfairly impact Pittsburgh, Ohio and other areas with many locks and dams.

A January 2011 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicated that barge operators' major competitors, trucks and railroads, are more heavily subsidized than the river transportation industry.



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