Infrastructure Proposal Dominates WCI’s Washington Meetings

With inland waterways specifically mentioned in last month’s State of the Union address, and President Trump’s historic press conference on the banks of the Ohio River last summer, substantial anticipation existed as members of Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) converged on the nation’s capital for its annual Washington Meetings February 13–15.

Anticipation quickly turned to disappointment with the release of both the FY 2019 budget and the long-awaited infrastructure package the day prior, as previously reported in last week’s issue.

The word “disconnect” became a mantra to qualify both the budget and the infrastructure outline, especially in light of the president’s previous recognitions of the inland waterways system’s importance to the nation.

Several representatives of the executive branch addressed the gathering, kicked off by Ryan A. Fisher, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army-civil works, Mark Buzby, the U.S. maritime administrator, and Thomas P. Smith, chief of the Operations and Regulatory Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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Ian Bennitt, staff director for the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, expressed optimism about Congress passing a Water Resources Development Act.

Jack Groarke, deputy state director for Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Mark Copeland, policy advisor to Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) both addressed the fact that the industry is the only entity cost-sharing rehabilitations and construction of locks and dams, despite the many other beneficiaries.

“You don’t see an industry and stakeholders asking for their taxes to be increased,” said Copeland, referring to the diesel fuel fee increase from 2014. “This is a unique situation.”

Reps. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), who both serve on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, provided their insight to the recently-announced budget. “[President Trump’s] a negotiator. This is a starting point,” said Rokita. “Now that it’s out, Congress goes to the work of appropriating. Now it’s [Congress’] turn, to explain how the budget does or doesn’t work.”

Rokita thanked the industry for its leadership in providing solutions to provide additional revenue from the diesel fuel fee and create a sustainable Inland Waterways Trust Fund, saying, “You punch above your weight as far as influence in this town.”

New to the event was a ‘virtual’ fly-in option, providing an opportunity to participate to those who couldn’t attend.  WCI members and non-members alike are encouraged to weigh in with their senators and house representative at the Action Center of ,   

On February 14, 11 teams executed more than 100 meetings on Capitol Hill from legislators in 17 states.

The evening was capped with a gala dinner honoring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) with WCI’s 17th Annual Leadership Service Award. McConnell—accompanied by his wife, Elaine Chao, U.S. secretary of transportation—was introduced by Crounse Corporation’s chairman, Stephen Little.

“It’s an honor to receive the Waterways Council’s Leadership Service Award,” said McConnell. “Our locks and dams are critical resources not only for Kentucky, but also for the nation. I would like to thank the Waterways Council for this award and for their years of work on behalf of American workers and communities. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished together, and I thank them for working with me to improve our nation’s vital inland waterways system,” McConnell concluded.

The final honoree, receiving WCI’s Waterways Counsel Award, was Jeffrey McKee, recently-retired chief of the Navigation Branch for the Corps. “Jeff is the epitome of the nation’s finest public servant,” said WCI’s Mike Toohey.

Paul Rohde is vice president-Midwest Region for Waterways Council Inc.