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Inland waterways officials praise funding measure

January 6, 2021   The Paducah Sun


Inland waterways officials praise funding measure

January 6, 2021


Inland waterways advocates are hailing the “historic” passage of the bill which funds the system’s operations, included in the 2021 omnibus appropriations and COVID-19 relief package recently approved by Congress.


The approval of the biennial Water Resources Development Act is significant for a number of reasons, according to Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc. (WCI), the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.


The WRDA package includes a more favorable cost-share adjustment for construction and major rehabilitation of inland waterways projects and, among other things, provides efficient funding for the Kentucky Lock project.


“From the Waterways Council’s perspective, this was historic because it (WRDA, usually a stand-alone bill) had not been attached to an omnibus bill before, or an appropriations bill before,” Calhoun said.


And the cost-share change “is also one of the biggest achievements that the Waterways Council has seen.”


Earlier in 2020, negotiations continued on the cost-share between the dedicated trust fund commercial operators pay in to and the federal government’s general revenues. The previous funding formula was a 50-50 split. The WCI advocated for a 75% (general revenues) and 25% (trust fund) split which had some congressional support.


“And, then COVID hit and that changed the world as we know it,” Calhoun said. “All of that stimulus money that was going out the door, and continues to go out the door, made it more challenging to push for 75-25.”


Ultimately, a 65-35 split was agreed to by both the House and Senate, along with an 11 fiscal year timeline before the cost share would be revisited.


After the government’s fiscal year ended in September, and as the end of the calendar year approached, “we didn’t know what vehicle it (WRDA) might ride on. So, it became apparent that they were going to throw all of the unfunded bills into a large omnibus bill that included the energy and water development fund of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and attached WRDA as well,” Calhoun said.


“In changing that construction cost share, it will add $100 million of additional funding per year, and that’s a billion dollars over about 10 years those funds are appropriated.”


Matt Ricketts, president of Paducah-based Crounse Corp. and board chair of the WCI, stressed

the importance of the support of Kentucky’s federal elected officials.


“I’ve mentioned before how much support we’ve received from Sen. (Mitch) McConnell and Sen. (Rand) Paul over the years as well as Congressman (James) Comer,” he said.


“Stuff like this doesn’t get done without their support and leadership. For a long time, they’ve recognized what the waterways system means for Kentucky and all of the different industries that are supported by it. We’re thankful for their support. It’s a big accomplishment in a difficult environment.


“And, to be able to add over a billion dollars of funds during that period not only gives greater confidence that the projects we currently have under construction — of which Kentucky Lock is one — that they’ll get done in an efficient manner. It also allows us to more effectively begin new projects we have need for across the system,” Ricketts said


The bill also authorizes funding of more than $1.1 billion for Kentucky Lock, which “our elected officials played a key role in getting accomplished,” Ricketts said, adding that those funds will allow it to be completed “in as efficient manner as they can.”

Kentucky Lock has faced some challenges in the past year, including dealing with high water conditions.

“My best guess, if you look at it today, would be that it would be operational in the 2025 to 2028 time frame,” Ricketts said. “Those (projected) dates can move when you have a long-life project that can be influenced by weather conditions.


“Even though they’ve faced the weather challenges, I think it is proceeding in a positive manner and is on the right track.”


Fiscal Year 2021 funding for the Corps is $7.8 billion, an increase of $145 million above the FY ‘20 level and $1.8 billion above the administration’s FY ‘21 budget request. With $113 million appropriated from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for FY ‘21, a construction program of at least $322 million will be possible.


“If you look at where the government can spend dollars on the infrastructure system to make things more efficient, and increase their capacity, the waterways stand out among the others,” Ricketts said.


“Even though it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ as long as you modernize the current system we have, it has a lot of built-in incremental capacity to handle more product. If you’re thinking about an infrastructure package and where to allocate investment dollars, the waterways system is a very high return place to do that.”