Washington Waves: February 19, 2018

Washington, D.C.—Two big rollouts on a long-awaited infrastructure initiative and the fiscal year 2019 budget from the Trump administration landed with a thud for representatives of the waterways industry, and some did not hold back in expressing disappointment and confusion over the administration’s approach on both fronts.

In an unexpected development, the White House did not knock down news reports that President Trump had somehow promoted a 25-cent hike in the federal fuel tax during a meeting on infrastructure with a bipartisan group of lawmakers despite stout opposition from key Republican senators.

Previously, two key members of the administration—Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Ryan Fisher and Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby—heard reactions on both efforts in person during back-to-back appearances at meetings held by Waterways Council Inc.

“If there was an idea to hurt the inland waterways system that this proposal does not include, I don’t know what it was,” John Doyle Jr., of Jones Walker, told Buzby in what was easily the most memorable exchange at one session.

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“Virtually everything in the budget FY 19 and what is in the infrastructure package that we have seen and understand so far is designed to hurt.”

As an example, Doyle cited the level of proposed spending that will result in waterways projects being halted despite a trust fund surplus.

“It makes no sense at all,” he said.

Buzby conceded he could not offer much of a satisfactory response.

“I don’t have that level of detail,” he said, promising to take Doyle’s message back to the administration.

In a statement issued in response to the administration’s infrastructure announcement the day before his group’s meetings, WCI President and CEO Mike Toohey said it “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.”

If the infrastructure recommendations were adopted, Toohey said, the Inland Waterways Trust Fund would be responsible for operating and maintaining the inland navigation system at an estimated eight times the trust fund income.

Toohey described the budget proposal for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as “dour,” adding it represents a clear disconnect from Trump’s encouraging rhetoric in his recent State of the Union address and his visit to the Ohio River last June.

Among the items he singled out: the overall budget request for the Corps; the request for spending $5.25 million of the $114 million collected in 2017 from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund with only the Olmsted project to be funded to completion; the halting of work at the other projects already underway; and a new user fee on inland waterways.

Critics of the administration’s two efforts might find some solace in the reactions on Capitol Hill that indicate that both are viewed as only starting points.

That response may have led Trump to make comments some interpreted as support for a gas-tax increase during the meeting with lawmakers who are expected to play a major role in getting an infrastructure package to the president’s desk.

“The gas tax has its pros and cons, and that’s why the president is leading a thoughtful discussion on the right way to solve our nation’s infrastructure problems,” a White House official said in response to an inquiry on those news reports.

“He has said everything is on the table.”

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has dismissed such talk.

Barrasso did not respond to a request for a comment following the White House meeting.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the retiring chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, left the door open on the tax issue.

“An infrastructure bill needs to be bipartisan and it needs to deal with real revenues to pay for fiscally responsible, long-term investments in our nation,” Shuster said in a statement following the meeting.

“Congress must address the long-term sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund and explore how we can broaden the pool of revenue and identify new sources for investment.”

According to the comments released by the White House, Trump used his meeting to heap praise on the bipartisan group of lawmakers as “a very capable group of people.”

Still, a gas-tax boost from a Republican-controlled Congress during an election year no doubt will remain a stretch for some.

As it promotes the president’s infrastructure initiative, the administration focuses on four priorities: using $200 billion in direct federal funding to spur up to $1.5 trillion in investment from non-federal sources, cutting the current permitting process down to two years, providing funding for rural projects and investing in workforce development.

James Takes Office

On his first day on the job, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James observed the unveiling of the fiscal year 2019 budget for the agency he will lead with Fisher filling in for him.

“I’m finally here,” James said in brief remarks to the press and others, noting his months-long confirmation process.

“I want you to know, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, my office door will be open to any and all that need to address our office. And, please, always feel welcome.”

Dredged Material Uses

Under a pilot program required by the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested proposals for the beneficial use of dredged material.

Proposals must be submitted by March 12, 2018, and the pilot program will carry out 10 projects.

Benefits under the program range from reducing storm damage and promoting public safety to promoting recreation and reducing dredging costs.

For additional information, contact Joseph Wilson at 202-761-7697.

Medical Advisory Committee

The Coast Guard announced the Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee and its working groups will meet at 8 a.m. March 6-7.

Open to the public, the meetings will be held at Vanderbilt University in the Sarratt Student Center, Room 216/220, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, Tenn. 37212.

For additional information, contact Davis Breyer at 202-372-1445.