On September 10, we editorialized that the lesson of Olmsted Lock and Dam’s delays and completion was that Congress should provide full and efficient funding for the remaining outstanding waterways projects so that delays like Olmsted’s can never happen again.
With the September 21 signing by President Trump of a so-called “minibus” or partial appropriations bill that includes funding for the Corps of Engineers, it looks like Congress and the president have absorbed that lesson.
Reflecting skillful legislative packaging, the desire of both parties to avoid a government shutdown and a bipartisan consensus on the importance of infrastructure, the bill enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support, with the House voting for it 377-20 and the Senate 92-5.
The bill raises FY2019 funding levels for the Corps’ Civil Works program to $6.99 billion, an increase of 46.08 percent from the administration’s request of $4.79 billion. This is the fourth consecutive year that Congress has increased funding for the Corps over and above what the president has requested. Operations & Maintenance (O&M) funding is increased to a record $3.74 billion, up 24.67 percent from the administration’s request of $3 billion.
Federal funding for projects supported by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) FY19 is $326.5 million. That’s an increase by an astounding 833 percent over the administration’s request for a mere $35 million, which would have funded only the completion of Olmsted.
“This is the first time in many years that a number of appropriations bills have been finalized before the start of the new fiscal year,” the Waterways Council Inc. said in a statement. “This means the Corps of Engineers will receive its full funding rather than operating from a continuing resolution that provides the previous fiscal year’s funding level.”
Even more important was the retaining of an amendment to change the cost-share formula at Chickamauga Lock to 85 percent federal funding and 15 percent from the IWTF (from a 50/50 cost share). This change will allow full work plan allocations to the top IWTF-supported projects, including Chickamauga Lock and Dam and Kentucky Lock and Dam on the Tennessee River, the Lower Mon project on the Monongahela River, and major repairs to LaGrange Lock and Dam on the Illinois River. (Specific project funding amounts will be released 60 days after enactment of the bill by the Corps in its FY19 work plan.)
Now that Olmsted is winding up, and with its lessons in mind, it would be a great tradition for Congress to reduce the cost-share burden on the IWTF for each top waterway infrastructure project in succession as the others get completed. As with Olmsted, this would be a way not only to speed up completion of these vitally necessary projects, but to save money.
As WCI President and CEO Mike Toohey said, “With the dedication of the Olmsted Locks and Dam project last month, strong funding for the Corps in fiscal year 2019, and a potential final WRDA bill in 2018, the inland waterways’ many beneficiaries and the U.S. economy have much to celebrate.”