Bill would boost river transit funding

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Long-delayed work on Monongahela River locks and dams could get a boost from a proposal to authorize an additional $105 million annually for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects. Congress is expected to approve the legislation next week and it is likely to be signed by President Barack Obama, a river industry official told reporters during a Friday conference call.

House and Senate negotiators this week resolved differences between versions of bills that were overwhelmingly approved earlier by each chamber. While the compromise does not provide actual funding, it specifies how money appropriated by Congress should be spent.

Work on locks and dams at Braddock, Elizabeth and Charleroi that was authorized in 1992 has been delayed because of a higher priority project 600 miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh that has been plagued by cost overruns and constructions delays.

Half of the money for the projects comes from a trust fund backed by a tax that barge and tow boat operators pay on the diesel fuel they consume. The federal government picks up the other half.

Replacing locks and dams near Olmsted, Ill., has claimed the majority of the $85 million the diesel fuel tax generates each year as well as the matching federal funds. The conference committee measure would decrease the industry's funding obligations for Olmsted from 50 percent to 15 percent.

Shifting more of the project's burden to taxpayers would provide an estimated $105 million annually for work on the Lower Mon and other projects, said Michael Toohey, president and CEO of the Waterways Council, an industry group that represents barge and tow operators, port administrators and other water interest groups.

A watchdog group objects to putting more of the burden on taxpayers.

"It's a dangerous precedent for abandoning cost-sharing on every project," said Joshua Sewell of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Congress approved a change in the Olmsted funding formula for just this year, making the federal government responsible for providing 75 percent of the money.

The $1.7 billion Mon River project was the biggest beneficiary of the shift, receiving $74.7 million this fiscal year compared to $1 million last year.

The legislation also permits private groups to provide money to the Corps for expediting permit approvals, accelerating studies of water-related projects, funding construction projects, and operating and maintaining Corps facilities.

That provision could help private groups that want to expand operating hours at locks and dams on the Upper Allegheny River.

It also would authorize increased funding to improve ports, environmental projects and other work overseen by the Corps.

Mr. Toohey expects the House to approve the measure Tuesday followed by a favorable Senate vote Wednesday.

"I suspect [the White House is] not going to object to this," he said.

Missing from the legislation is an industry-backed proposal to increase the diesel tax from 20 cents a gallon to 26 or 29 cents a gallon.

Mr. Toohey expects that measure will be approved later this year. He said the 300 or so companies that pay the tax support the increase, as do their customers.

A 9-cent increase would provide an additional $40 million, which would be matched by $40 million in taxpayer funds, he said.

More than half of the 200-plus locks and related dams overseen by the Corps are more than 50 years old.

Western Pennsylvania has some of the oldest water infrastructure in the country.

The older facilities are more expensive to maintain and break down more often, causing lengthy delays in moving coal, grain and other commodities on the nation's rivers.

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


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