Not a lock: Congress still has work to do on U.S. waterways

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Pittsburgh is a city of three rivers — founded along them, made prosperous by them, still economically advantaged by them. But the region needs infrastructure in the form of locks and dams to sustain its river traffic.

That’s a problem, not just for the Pittsburgh region but the nation. Because of insufficient funding, infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate, particularly in this area, where the locks and dams are among the oldest of the old.

But on Monday, the drumbeat of bad news was interrupted by a bugle call to progress. At an event at Station Square, Sen. Bob Casey celebrated a breakthrough in Congress last week — an agreement by a conference committee of congressional negotiators on the Water Resources Reform Development Act, HR 3080, which the Democratic senator has championed (with the notable help of House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Blair).

Significantly, the bill would have the federal government pay for 85 percent of a project in Olmsted, Ill., which has run over budget and sucked up funding from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to the detriment of other projects. (Typically, federal dollars and the trust fund split the costs 50-50.) With only 15 percent of the Olmsted cost to be paid by the trust fund, money would be freed up for the most urgent projects, including on the Lower Mon.

What this legislation would not do is raise the 20-cents-a-gallon user fee on diesel fuel paid by barge operators to sustain the trust fund. The river transportation industry actually favors raising it by up to 9 cents.

The companies that work the rivers understand better than anyone why infrastructure must be maintained. But does Congress, many of whose members abhor tax hikes? Surely any pledge not to raise taxes can’t be offended by an industry’s request to raise a tax on itself.

The bill brokered by the conference committee is expected to get a vote in the next few days. But then Congress must agree to an appropriations bill that approves the dollars to serve the policy. Its members can’t falter now. Votes for fixing locks and dams are votes for a prosperous economy.

 

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