Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
Mar 15, 2019
WASHINGTON – A year ago President Donald Trump proposed halting work on the Monongahela River locks and dams project, but now he wants to fully fund it.
The White House budget released this week would provide $111 million to finish the Lower Mon project, the only construction the president proposes to fund through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund next year.
“That’s great for Pittsburgh but in terms of the overall waterways it’s not good news,” said Deb Calhoun, spokeswoman for the Waterways Council. “It doesn’t help to have one lock that’s in great shape but all the rest of them lagging behind. What we really want to see is the system as a whole get funded appropriately.”
That would mean spending down the trust fund, rather than leaving a surplus as presidents have for years, she and other industry insiders said.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, but budget documents provide some rationale for the president’s spending choices: “By proposing not to start any new construction projects, the budget enables the Corps to focus on completing … ongoing priority projects faster and at a reduced cost, allowing the affected communities to see their benefits sooner.”
If the past two budget cycles are any indication, Congress is likely to add funding to the president’s request.
Last year’s budget request fully funded completion of the Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River in Illinois while zeroing out funding for other projects. Congress added to the president’s request allowing completion of the Olmsted project and incremental progress on other locks and dams including on the Monongahela.
The new budget’s prioritization of the Lower Mon was a pleasant surprise to officials at Port of Pittsburgh, who for the last two years had to persuade members of Congress for funding that wasn’t included in the president’s budget.
“I was afraid it was going to be more of the same, but I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Port of Pittsburgh executive director Mary Ann Bucci. “This is a big deal. If we continue to get full and efficient funding we’ll have the locks operational by 2022 and completed by 2023.”
In his budget, the president also proposed per-vessel user fees to finance future capital investments in waterways by generating another $178 million a year in revenue.
Waterways projects are paid for partly through general fund dollars and partly through a trust fund made up of revenue from a diesel fuel tax paid by barge operators For the Lower Mon project, about $55.5 million would come from the trust fund and $55.5 million from the general fund.
Barge operators already are frustrated the trust fund isn’t fully utilized for waterways projects as intended.
The current diesel tax, for example, is projected to raise $67 million more this year than the administration wants to spend. Combined with the general fund match, that $67 million could leverage $119 in construction activity.
“There’s $67 million left on the table that could be going to move other projects along,” said Mike Toohey, president of the Waterways Council, an industry group that formed in 2003 to pressure the government to spend the Waterways Trust Fund’s then-$400 million surplus.
Said Ms. Calhoun: “We don’t want to see a surplus growing in the trust fund when we have so many needs in the system.”
More than 30 million tons of commodities are shipped each year through the Mon locks, which are among the oldest overseen by the Corps. Failure would halt river traffic and congest roadways and railways, Mr. Toohey said.
One barge tow carries the equivalent cargo of 1,050 truckload or 216 rail cars, he said.
“Barge is the most efficient, cost-effective way of transporting goods, and also the safest and most environmentally friendly,” Mr. Toohey said.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org; 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.com.