WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

President’s Waterways Budget Request Is Non-Starter

Last week we mentioned President Trump’s rhetorical support of the merchant marine. Too bad that support has never been reflected in his budget requests.

The president released his budget request last week. In response, WCI President and CEO Mike Toohey said it was “[not] unexpected based on past Office of Management and Budget requests from any administration [yet] still very disappointing considering the president’s many positive pronouncements on the importance of infrastructure investment.”

For the Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works program, the president’s FY20 budget proposes a mere $4.827 billion, which would represent a 31 percent cut from the FY19 appropriated amount of $7 billion.

In fiscal year 2019, Congress appropriated $329.8 million for five Inland Waterways Trust Fund-funded projects, ignoring the president’s FY19 request for construction that was just $35 million for the Olmsted Locks and Dam project on the Ohio River. Congress increased that $35 million request by 842.3 percent, enabling efficient funding for Lower Mon, Kentucky Lock (confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers), Chickamauga Lock (Tennessee River), and funding to completion for Olmsted (Ohio River) and for major rehabilitation of LaGrange Lock (Illinois Waterway).

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If the president’s FY20 budget request were to be accepted, Lower Mon would be the only IWTF project receiving FY20 funding, while Kentucky Lock and Chickamauga Lock would go unfunded.

Disturbingly, the president’s FY20 budget again proposes a per-vessel charge (toll) on the inland waterways, despite the industry’s strong opposition and its status as the only fee-payer among the many beneficiaries of the waterways infrastructure. The FY20 budget proposal would also have commercial operators pay for 10 percent of the Corps’ operations and maintenance (O&M) funding, historically a purely federal responsibility. The FY20 budget request proposes $3.025 billion for O&M, and $148 million for Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries (MR&T). Inland O&M received $705 million in the FY20 request.

The budget proposes $965 million derived from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, down from the FY19 appropriated level of $1.55 billion.

The administration is apparently ignoring evidence that the “efficient funding” the civil works program received last year in spite of the president’s low budget request actually speeds up projects and saves money, as Corps officials recently demonstrated for members of the Inland Waterways Users Board (WJ, March 11).

Trump’s budget request will spend a few months providing sport for pundits and journalists, but most serious observers on all sides of the aisle say that little of it has any chance of becoming law.

Waterways interests will have to trust to Congress once again to do the right thing by our aging waterways infrastructure.