WCI: Infrastructure plan would eliminate federal waterways role
In what appears to be the strongest of many reactions to President Donald Trump’s infrastructure proposal, the Waterways Council Inc. said that the proposal moves toward eliminating the role of the federal government to construct, operate and maintain U.S. waterways by transferring that responsibility to non-federal public or private entities.
WCI President and CEO Mike Toohey said Trump had moved away from his earlier promise that “together we will fix” the nation’s infrastructure.
Toohey said that if the infrastructure recommendations are adopted, the Inland Waterways Trust Fund would be responsible for operating and maintaining the inland navigation system at a cost estimated to be eight times that of current trust-fund income.
“Carriers, and therefore shippers like American family farmers, energy/petroleum and coal producers, cement and construction material companies, and many others who rely on the cost-competitive waterways to ship their products around the U.S. and the world, would be saddled with massive increases that will deter freight from the waterways and cause a modal transportation shift,” Toohey said.
“This would negatively affect our agriculture trade balance, increase traffic congestion on our highways and railways, and impact our environment,” he continued.
Toohey noted that Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget request and infrastructure initiative also “propose to modernize the waterways transportation system by authorizing the federal government (likely the Corps of Engineers) and ‘third-party service providers’ to impose and retain tolls or lockage fees on the lock and dam system.”
When Trump visited the Ohio River last June he described the nation’s system of locks and dams as dilapidated and said, “Together, we will fix it. We will create the first-class infrastructure our country and our people deserve.”
But now “the administration infrastructure proposal actually seems to mean that commercial operators and shippers are the only ones who will be expected to pay, and significantly more, for the nation’s waterways transportation system, despite being just one beneficiary of the lock and dam system,” Toohey said.
WIC explained in a news release, “Currently, commercial waterways operators — just 400 companies across the entire national system — are the only beneficiary to contribute 29-cents-per-gallon diesel fuel tax to a dedicated Inland Waterways Trust Fund, matched by general Treasury funds, that pays for half of the costs of construction and major rehabilitation of the system.”
“Other system beneficiaries — recreational boaters, commercial fishermen, and those who benefit from hydropower generation, municipal and industrial water supply, flood control and national security — do not contribute to waterways improvements, although they utilize and rely upon the lock and dam system.”
Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Trump’s infrastructure proposal “falls far short of what is needed to address our nation’s crumbling bridges and outdated railroads and highways.”
“It seeks to fund its proposal on the backs of working Americans by raising new tolls,” Leahy said. “Toll roads would not work in Newport, Vt., or in rural areas across the country that are seeking desperately needed repairs.”
“While claiming to address our nation’s infrastructure, Trump’s budget actually cuts transportation, housing, and urban development programs by 29 percent,” he said. “His untenable infrastructure proposal will bankrupt states, in favor of lining the pockets of wealthy developers.”
Meanwhile, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson said Trump’s proposal “to improve and expand rural energy, broadband, and surface transportation will help rural communities adapt and thrive in the modern American economy.”
“As the president and Congress work together to finalize an infrastructure proposal,” Matheson said, “it’s important that the package continue to focus on more than roads and bridges. A vibrant 21st century rural economy depends on expanded high speed internet access and electric grid modernization efforts.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue noted that Trump’s proposal calls for one quarter of the infrastructure money to go to rural America, much of it through block grants to the states, that he said will mean “states will have the ability to expand broadband access, increase connectivity, rebuild roads, and supply affordable utilities. Importantly, states will have the flexibility to choose which projects will best meet their unique needs.”
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said he was encouraged by Trump’s acknowledgment of the infrastructure needs of rural America, and that he looks forward to working with Congress “to maximize opportunities to improve rural America’s failing infrastructure.”
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said, “President Trump’s ‘Building a Stronger America’ plan promises to bring long overdue improvements to the country roads, bridges and broader infrastructure that farmers and ranchers depend on to reach customers at home and abroad.”
“While past infrastructure plans have left rural America in the dust, this administration has not forgotten the rural communities that form the backbone of our nation.”
Duvall added, “We also applaud the administration for placing the decisions of how these dollars should be spent back at the local level. Governors and local officials know their roads and bridges better than anyone, and they are ready to set the priorities for rebuilding rural America.”
“Farmers and ranchers know the pride of ownership and a hard day’s work, and the president’s infrastructure plan rewards those values. With less bureaucratic red tape and more local ownership, we’re confident this plan gives rural America the tools to drive our economy forward.”