WCI Celebrates 20 Years, Looks to Future ChallengesView Source
The year was 2003: George W. Bush was in the White House; the Iraq War was just beginning; Linkin Park sold more than six million records; “Finding Nemo” was one of the highest-grossing films; the St. Louis Rams were on their way to a 12-win season; a guy named Elon started a car company named Tesla; and a group of inland waterway stakeholders joined forces to launch Waterways Council Inc. (WCI).
The organization grew out of a campaign called Waterways Work!, formed to lobby Congress to properly allocate dollars from the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, which had accumulated a surplus of $412 million in 2002. The group, led by Berdon Lawrence and Joe Pine, both of Kirby Corporation, also worked to better tell the Corps of Engineers’ story as the federal agency in charge of waterway infrastructure.
“In those early days, we were very successful,” said Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of WCI, who also served on the staff of the Waterways Work! campaign. “We would talk to members of Congress and really began the drumbeat to create vocal champions of the inland waterways.”
Following the successes of the Waterways Work! campaign, leaders saw the need for a more national effort, so in 2003 they joined with Barry Palmer’s DINAMO (the Association for the Development of Inland Navigation in America’s Ohio Valley), and they renamed the organization Waterways Council Inc. Lawrence served as the first chairman of WCI, and Palmer was hired as the organization’s first president and CEO. In 2007, MARC 2000, a campaign focused on the Upper Mississippi River, also merged with WCI.
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“The goal was to have one united voice for the construction portfolio,” said Paul Rohde, WCI’s vice president for the Midwest area, who previously served as president of MARC 2000. “WCI, which had been focused primarily on authorized projects on the Ohio River, gained a lot more diversity in its membership, especially with its inclusion of agriculture and organized labor. It also became more geographically diverse.”
Rohde said the goal has always been to present Congress one message “from many voices” on how crucial efficient and reliable waterway infrastructure truly is to the entire nation.
Throughout the past 20 years, WCI has been at the center of every major advocacy effort for waterway infrastructure projects, from funding and authorization for NESP (Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program) on the Upper Mississippi and increasing the diesel fuel tax to 29 cents per gallon to changing the cost-share for Olmsted Locks and Dam, moving to a biennial schedule for Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bills, setting the Corps’ Capital Investments Strategy and allocating dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
IIJA, signed into law November 15, 2021, set aside $17 billion in new infrastructure funding and $2.5 billion for inland waterway projects, but inflation and cost overruns have created a conundrum for Corps projects previously thought to be “funded to completion.” Cost overruns—and more importantly who pays for them—is a major issue for waterway stakeholders.
“Before IIJA ink was dry, we began hearing about these cost overruns,” Rohde said. “It’s unrealistic to ask for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to pay for the cost overruns. None of the cost overruns are due to industry.”
Seven inland waterway infrastructure projects received funding from IIJA, and five of those were considered at the time to be “funded to completion.” Since then, though, the Corps has announced that four of those will need significantly more funding. In the case of Kentucky Lock and Dam, the project has a $332 million-plus cost overrun. That project received $465 million in IIJA funding.
Tracy Zea, WCI’s president and CEO, and his colleagues are arguing for cost overruns to be covered by the federal government, in keeping with the spirit of IIJA.
“Within the Senate, we have 18 senators that submitted it as a priority, so we feel very confident that something’s going to happen in [WRDA 2024],” Zea said. “Is it 100 percent federal? Probably not. They are going to shift the cost share, so the trust fund will probably pick up about 15 percent of the rest of the projects. The reason this is important is this will help leverage our fuel tax dollars to ensure completion of these projects.”
The reason, Rohde said, is because waterway infrastructure benefits the whole nation, not just the towboat and barge, agriculture and oil and gas industries.
“There are a lot more beneficiaries to efficient lock and dam operations than just those industries,” he said.
Asking the navigation industry to shoulder the entirety of the cost overruns would “break the back of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund,” Rohde said.
Zea said that work—advocating for a modern, efficient and reliable inland waterway transportation system in large part through the proper use of Inland Waterways Trust Fund dollars—is the reason WCI was founded.
“That is still our top focus and mission,” he said.