By Dave Gambrel
Following two days of debate and consideration of numerous amendments, the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 240-177 a $34.5 billion FY16 Energy and Water Development spending bill, HR 2028. The measure would fund the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Civil Works Program at $5.6 billion, $182 million higher than current spending levels and $905 million more than the president’s request. Increased corps funding and full use of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund would be achieved if the legislation were approved by the White House.
It is a tremendous job to ensure that the nation’s waterways are properly cared for. Collectively, 192 lock and dam sites, 12,000 miles of corps-maintained waterways, and 926 harbors combine to handle 2.5 billion short tons of cargo and foreign commerce valued at more than $1 trillion to the economy. The U.S. Congress recognized the importance of the inland waterways when, in 1824, it authorized the USACE to undertake its first civil works mission — the removal of snags and other obstructions to navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. In addition, the Ohio’s flow was improved by the construction of wing dams or dikes to concentrate flow into the main channel. In spite of these efforts, safe navigation was still sporadic and seasonal. Congress probably never expected the job of snag removal to grow like it has, but the USACE is well aware of its current size.
Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) is the primary organization focused on a modern and well-maintained, efficiently funded inland waterways and ports system/locks and dams infrastructure. The American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) focuses on port and harbor maintenance issues. The American Waterways Operators (AWO) represents barge and towing carriers from coast to coast and addresses primarily regulatory/U.S. Coast Guard issues. The National Waterways Conference (NWC) represents levee boards and other water resources organizations and addresses a broader range of issues.
Reporting on this bill, WCI Vice President Debra Colbert said, “The FY 2016 E&WD and Related Agencies appropriations bill was approved by the House Appropriations Committee last week (April 15). However, a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) indicated that the president’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill in its current form, leading to near unanimous Democratic votes in opposition to the legislation on final passage in the full House.”
The overall size of the USACE civil works mission portion of the bill is $5,637 million and restores administration cuts, adding $905 million to the administration request and increasing the USACE’s 2015 appropriated amount by $182 million.
The bill increases the president’s proposed construction account funding level by 40% to $1.63 billion. Within the construction account, $340 million will be made available for Inland Waterways Trust Fund priority navigation projects, which Appropriations Committee leaders said expends full use of revenues into that fund. This was one of WCI’s key requests this year for appropriators and particularly important in light of last year’s $0.09 increase in the barge diesel fuel tax rate.
The USACE’s Operations and Mainten-ance (O&M) account funding level is $3.09 billion, the highest ever appropriated to this account in an annual appropriation bill, and the third consecutive year of record-level O&M funding. It is nearly $390 million higher than the administration’s 2016 requested level. While WCI requested a $10 million increase in general investigations funding, the bill actually provides an $13 million more than the original amount the administration requested.
From the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), the bill’s proposed FY2016 appropriation of $1.18 billion was amended on the floor to provide $1.25 billion, which is $150 million or 14% higher than last year’s $1.1 billion and well above the $915 million that the administration requested from the HMTF.
WCI reiterated its gratitude for the leadership of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), and Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID). “Increasing funding for the Corps of Engineers’ work and expending full use of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund will modernize the inland navigation system and increase competitiveness,” said WCI President Michael J. Toohey. Other subcommittee members include Republicans Mike Simpson, Idaho, chairman; Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey; Ken Calvert, California; Chuck Fleischmann, Tennessee, vice chair; Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska; Kay Granger, Texas; Jaime Herrera Beutler, Washington; and David Valadao, California. Others include Democrats Marcy Kaptur, Ohio, ranking member; Pete Visclosky, Indiana; Mike Honda, California; and Lucille Roybal-Allard, California.
Senate Passes Legislation That Includes Barge Diesel User Fee Increase
On December 16, 2014, the Senate voted 76-16 to pass HR 5571, tax extenders legislation that included a $0.09 increase in the inland waterways diesel user fee. The increase was effective April 1 and funds — around $40 million from industry levies — will be deposited into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for the benefit of priority navigation project construction and major rehabilitation.
On December 3, the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 404-17 the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act that included the $0.09 increase to the user fee.
The user fee increase is the most recent key recommendation of the Capital Development Plan (CDP) to be adopted into law, with four of the CDP’s elements adopted through the passage of the Water Resources Reform Development Act (WRRDA). A full tax code overhaul continues to be debated, but Congress is not there yet. Tax extenders legislation in the form of a bill called the Tax Increase Prevention Act was passed in the lame duck session of Congress (Senate) last December. That included the $0.09 user fee increase.
WRRDA of 2014
WRRDA was passed last year and signed into law in June 2014 by the president. The next WRRDA may be up again in 2016, but could be delayed due to pre-election and other priorities. WRRDA 2014 was preceded by WRDA 2007, so an observant mathematician would note that every two-year water resources authorization bill takes seven years to get done.
The conference agreement had passed the House by an overwhelming 412-4 vote. Senate passage by a strong vote of 91-7 underscored the strong bipartisan effort to enact the critical water resources bill.
The bill contained four key elements of the CDP that were included in the House WAVE 4 (H.R. 1149) and Senate RIVER Act (S. 407) bills, strongly supported by WCI:
Olmsted Federalization: permanent cost-sharing for the remaining cost of the Olmsted project will be 85% General fund, 15% Inland Waterways trust Fund, freeing up approximately $105 million per year for funding other Trust Fund priority projects with Olmsted funded at $150 million per year.
Definition of Major Rehabilitation Project Eligible for Inland Waterways Trust Fund: Increased from current law level of $14 million to $20 million and adjusted annually for inflation.
Prioritization of Projects: Based upon risk of failure and economic benefit to the nation.
Project Delivery Process Reforms: Based upon CDP-recommended reforms to achieve on-time and on-budget performance.
The bill also increased annual target appropriations levels for spending of funds from the HMTF, with full use of HMTF funds by 2025.
The CDP is a comprehensive consensus package of recommendations to improve the continued vitality of the inland waterways that was developed in concert with the USACE, and was unanimously endorsed by the congressionally chartered Inland Waterways Users Board in 2010.
Ohio River Locks and Dams Built for Navigation
It would be easy for someone living in the Mississippi River Valley to conclude that the system of Ohio River locks and dams was built to control flooding on the Ohio. It was actually built to ensure that commercial river traffic could find a sufficient depth of water from Pittsburgh to Cairo.
The first complete lock and dam project built by the USACE on the Ohio was at Davis Island, a few miles below Pittsburgh. This lock and dam opened to traffic in 1885. The project proved its worth, and in 1910, Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act. This act authorized construction of a river-length system of locks and dams, which would provide a 9-ft navigation depth. When completed in 1929, the “canalization” project consisted of 51 movable dams with wooden wickets and a lock chamber measuring 600 ft by 110 ft.
In the 1940s, the transition from steam to diesel-powered tow boats enabled tows longer than the 600-ft locks to move on the river, requiring “double locking” when the string of barges had to be locked through in two maneuvers. This was a hazardous and time consuming operation causing traffic delays resulting in increased costs to the towing industry.
In the 1950s, the corps undertook the Ohio River Navigation Modernization Program to replace the obsolete system of wicket dams and small locks. Each of the new high-lift concrete and steel dams replaced at least two of the old structures. Each dam consists of two locks, one 600 ft by 110 ft, the other 1,200 ft by 110 ft. Use of the 1,200-ft chamber allows the towboat and up to 15 barges to transit the lock in one maneuver. At Smithland Locks and Dam, there are two 1,200-ft chambers, the only such navigation project in the world. There are 18 of the high-lift dams. All of these dams are non-navigable, requiring traffic to use the locks. The locks and dams on the Ohio serve a navigation purpose only; they do not provide flood damage reduction.
The USACE’s role in providing a safe navigation infrastructure on the Ohio River is a mission without end. Locks and Dams 52 and 53 on the lower river are the last of the old wicket dams, and were scheduled for replacement by the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, to be completed by 2008.
The Water Resources Development Act of 1990 authorized the McAlpine Locks Replacement Project. This work replaced the 600-ft and 360-ft locks with a 1,200- by 110-ft lock on the Kentucky bank side of the Louisville and Portland Canal adjacent to the existing lock. This gave the McAlpine project twin 1,200-ft locks for efficient movement of projected increases in tow traffic. In addition, the existing swing and bascule bridges were replaced by construction of a two-lane, high fixed span concrete bridge to provide access to Shippingport Island and the Louisville Gas and Electric hydroelectric generating station. The new lock was completed and opened April 2009.
The Louisville District Corps of Engineers operates eight navigation structures on the Ohio, from Markland Locks and Dam downriver to the mouth. The projects operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, serving both the towing industry and recreational boaters.
Olmsted Locks and Dam
The choke point of Ohio River traffic lies near Olmsted, Illinois, just a few miles below the confluence of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers with the Ohio River. Locks and Dam 52 is just one of two structures left on the Ohio River that uses wooden wicket dams to maintain a navigational pool during low water. Ohio River navigation will make history when Olmsted Lock & Dam replaces the deteriorating locks and dams 52 and 53 with twin 1,200-ft lock chambers and metal wickets. No longer will it be necessary for men to stand on a 90-year-old work boat in all kinds of weather and use a 23-ft-long steel hook-end pole to fish for the eye of a wicket.
The highest tonnage in the nation passes through L&D 52 & 53. The two locks operate an average of 40% per year due to river elevations overtopping the lock walls. The original 600-ft chamber was completed in 1929; the 1,200-ft “temporary” chamber was completed in 1969.
One project, the Olmsted Locks project in Illinois, is on track to run more than $3 billion over budget and has eaten up much of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund revenue in recent years. Nevertheless, its value will far exceed the value of improved safety and efficiency improvement. New technology and managerial methods will be an important byproduct.
The completed project will have net annual benefits of approximately $640 million — returning more than the construction costs in less than five years. The Olmsted project is a reinvestment in our nation’s future. This location is one of the most crucial points in the nation’s navigation system — the hub of the inland waterways navigation system. On an annual basis, approximately 90 million tons of waterborne commerce passes through this area. If Olmsted is not completed, this project will account for the highest loss of benefits to the nation of all inland navigation construction projects to date.
Dave Gambrel is a transportation consultant and writer. In his former occupation as director of transportation for Peabody Coal, he testified before Congress on the proposed Olmsted project. He can be reached at [email protected].