Washington Waves
Washington Waves

President’s Budget Lowballs Civil Works Spending

Washington, D.C.—Members of the waterways industry expressed disappointment over President Donald Trump’s $4.7 trillion budget proposal for fiscal year 2020, singling out its calls for a 31 percent funding cut in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works program, a per-vessel charge on inland waterways, and commercial operators to pay 10-percent of Operations and Maintenance funding that has been a federal responsibility.

Waterways Council Inc. President and CEO Mike Toohey said the administration’s request was “not unexpected,” given those from past administrations.

“The FY20 proposal is still very disappointing considering the president’s many positive pronouncements on the importance of infrastructure investment,” Toohey said.

Key Democratic lawmakers wasted no time in declaring the budget proposal DOA, with some specifically rejecting the president’s request for $8.6 billion more in border wall funding.

In its news alert, the National Waterways Conference noted that “dead on arrival” reception, predicting further scrutiny in congressional hearings to be held after Congress returns from the upcoming recess.

Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James disagreed with suggestions the budget proposal would cut his program’s budget by nearly a third to $4.8 billion compared to the amount congressional appropriators provided last year.

James urged reporters to compare figures in the FY 2020 proposal to those in the FY 2019 document, but that defense fell flat, especially since the 31 percent figure was used in a budget document released by the White House.

A vocal proponent of moving dirt, James also stuck to that topic in his prepared remarks.

“This budget will make it possible to accelerate delivery of much needed infrastructure. Infrastructure that protects lives, improves commerce and benefits all Americans,” James said.

That press statement provided the following breakdown for the FY 2020 funding:

• $1.930 billion for Operation and Maintenance (O&M)

• $1.170 billion for Construction

• $965 million for Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF)

• $210 million for Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T)

• $200 million for the Regulatory Program

• $187 million for Expenses

• $77 million for Investigations

• $56 million for Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF)

• $27 million for Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies

• $5 million for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works

‘Funding Partnerships’

Stressing a need for less reliance on federal funding for future construction investments, the White House document said $150 million would be made available for innovative funding partnerships between the government and non-federal sponsors to accelerate projects, but that proposal along with another one with a similar amount attached to it generated questions about how exactly they would work.

The document also described the annual per-vessel fee for commercial users of inland waterways as part of an effort to reform laws governing the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

“The current diesel fuel tax is insufficient to support the users’ share of these costs,” it stated.

WCI said the per-vessel fee would generate $178 million.

Also proposed by the administration were revisions to the appropriations language for Construction, Operation and Maintenance, and Mississippi River and Tributaries accounts, and new appropriations language for the Harbor Maintenance and Inland Waterways Trust Funds to provide greater transparency in how those funds are spent.

Once again, the administration proposed using $200 billion in federal funds as leverage for a trillion-dollar infrastructure package, which was down from the $1.5 trillion amount promoted previously.

Still, details on how that would be done and paid for were left out of the budget proposal.

A senior administration official explained to reporters the administration wants to work with Congress on developing such details.

While noting that more details of the administration’s budget proposal will be released in the coming days, the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) welcomed the proposed increases in certain grant programs as well as the additional staff for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, although it conceded that boost would be at a slower pace than Congress had approved in recent years.

Small Shipyard Grants

The Maritime Administration (MarAd) announced availability of $19.6 million for capital and related improvements under the Small Shipyard Grant Program (see related article in this issue).

Applications must be received by MarAd by 5 p.m. April 16.

Expecting requests to far exceed the available funds, MarAd said only a small percentage of applications, roughly 10 to 20, will be selected for funding with an average grant amount of about $1 million.

For additional information, contact David Heller at 202-366-5737.

Jones Act Repeal Bill

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a bill to repeal the Jones Act, describing the law’s trade restrictions as a “huge loss for American consumers and producers.”

“It is long past time to repeal the Jones Act entirely,” Lee said.

He blamed the decades-old law for higher prices for imported goods as well as slowing down assistance following natural disasters.

Called “Open America’s Water Act of 2019,” S. 694 was assigned to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, where it immediately could face stout opposition.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), that committee’s chairman, is a vocal defender of the Jones Act, describing its enforcement as important to the nation’s economic and national security.

At a recent hearing, Wicker announced he and other members of the panel sent a letter to urge the Trump administration to convene a stakeholders meeting to discuss how the maritime industry can meet new demands and serve new markets.

Lee’s bill also triggered opposition from the American Maritime Partnership (AMP), which described the Jones Act as a “backbone for the United States’ national, homeland and economic security.”

 AMP pointed out Lee’s bill “is virtually unchanged from previously failed bills introduced in both 2010 and 2017.”

DOT Guidelines Comments

Members of the public have an extra 30 days to comment on guidelines that might be “good candidates” for modification, replacement or even repeal at the Maritime Administration as well as other components of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Comments now must be filed by May 8.

In announcing the 30-day extension, DOT explained it was agreeing with a request from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

For additional information contact Jonathan Moss at 202-366-4723.