WJ Editorial

Congress Steps Up To Fund Maritime, Inland Needs

The inland waterways industry got some good news with the passage by Congress of the $1.3 trillion omnibus appropriations bill to keep the government going for the rest of 2018, which President Trump signed even though he criticized some of its provisions.

On funding of projects important to the waterways industry, Congress ignored the president’s budget requests, instead properly funding maritime and inland infrastructure needs. Especially noticeable was the snubbing of the President’s proposed measures to attract $800 million in private infrastructure financing with $200 million in federal “seed money.” The budget ignored the president’s request for new user fees, which the American Waterways Operators (AWO) and Waterways Council Inc. both strongly opposed.

When it came to Corps of Engineers appropriations, Congress provided a record $6.827 billion to the Corps, $789 million more than in fiscal 2017 and $1.8 billion more than the administration’s budget request. That includes a record-setting $3.63 billion for the Corps’ operation and maintenance (O&M) account; and allotted $1.4 billion from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, 45 percent above the president’s request and $100 million more than last year’s appropriation.

Thankfully, the spending plan for the rest of fiscal 2018 budget will more than double funding for work on the new Chickamauga lock, paying for all planned construction this year.

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The Maritime Administration was given $979.6 million, $457 million above the 2017 level. The Assistance to Small Shipyards Program was kept at the same funding level of $10 million, and the Marine Highway Program was funded at $7 million, up from $5 million.

The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, also known as National Infrastructure Investments, was tripled from last year’s $500 million to about $1.5  billion.

Despite these positive measures, the inland waterways industry didn’t get everything on its wish list. On AWO’s top priority, the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA), Congress punted. Despite an intensive effort by AWO and its VIDA Coalition partners, VIDA was not included. AWO said it “will continue to lead the coalition and work with congressional allies to find another vehicle for passage of this much-needed legislation this year.”

On the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Brandon Road Study, the bill merely urges the Corps to finalize it by February 2019, and to “implement protocols shown to be effective at reducing the risk of entrainment without jeopardizing the safety of vessels and crews.” AWO and the UnLock Our Jobs coalition issued a statement that said they “will continue to work with Congress and federal agencies to support Asian carp control measures at the Brandon Road Lock that do not compromise the safety of mariners or the efficiency of navigation.”

Until September, at least, the president’s desire for extensive private funding of infrastructure with the possibility of user fees will recede into the background. As our Washington Waves correspondent notes in this issue, D.J. Gribbin, Trump’s special assistant for infrastructure policy and the reported architect of Trump’s February infrastructure speech that included those proposals, has left the White House.

Whether the proposals will be resurrected during the next budget negotiation is impossible to say. A lot can happen in less than a year. There’s no relaxing in Washington, but waterways advocacy organizations can take satisfaction in their good work with members of Congress.