WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Budget Theater Disappoints Infrastructure Advocates

Whatever happened to the “infrastructure president” who posed against a backdrop of working towboats on the Ohio River?

Wherever he was, he was nowhere to be found in the administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021.

Especially notable was the almost complete disregard for the inland waterways, especially away from the coasts. Waterways Council Inc. called the president’s proposed budget “astonishingly inadequate” and said it would “gut the waterways.”

“Where’s the shame?” asked WCI president Mike Toohey, noting that the proposed budget cuts Corps civil works funding by $1.7 billion from the FY20 enacted levels. It “zeros out” completely several important lock and dam projects. “Last fiscal year (FY20), Congress appropriated $335 million for four IWTF-funded projects under construction on the inland waterways system, enabling efficient funding for Kentucky Lock, Chickamauga Lock, and funding to completion for Olmsted Locks and Dam and the Lower Mon Project (Pennsylvania). If the president’s FY21 budget is accepted, these construction projects would shut down for one fiscal year, workers would be laid off, and costs would increase when the projects are restarted.”

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Toohey said he hoped the budget will be dead on arrival and added, “I will offer to members of the House and Senate to provide the shovel and the preacher.”

Toohey’s reaction contrasted with WCI’s positive response to the Corps’ FY20 work plan, using already allocated funds, which was also released last week. The Corps provided the first funding for the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP) on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers since 2012, giving $4.5 million from the FY20 work plan to continue Preconstruction Engineering and Design for the program; $3 million will go toward NESP’s navigation component and $1.5 million will go toward its environmental restoration component.

From its construction account, the Corps provided $336.76 million, representing full and efficient funding from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, to be divided among Olmsted Lock and Dam ($63 million to completion), Kentucky Lock ($61.06 million), the Lower Mon 2,3,4 Project ($111 million), and Chickamauga Lock ($101.7 million).

The work plan gave $85.35 million to begin the deepening of the Mississippi River Ship Channel to 50 feet from Baton Rouge to the Gulf.

Toohey praised the work plan, saying, “We owe tremendous thanks to Congress for utilizing revenues from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund that commercial operators pay to fund half of construction through the highest diesel fuel tax of any surface transportation mode. WCI is particularly grateful for PED funding for the NESP program on the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway that is the lifeblood for agricultural shippers and others.” He singled out R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army-civil works, for special thanks.

So what’s with the president budget proposal? Does his administration really want to shut down those efficiently funded lock and dam projects next year?

We can only conclude that it is election-year theatrics. Presidents running for a second term often make noises about reining in spending. They propose unrealistic budget cuts to programs whose funding they know Congress will restore; then they can blame Congress for deficits on the campaign trail.

Fortunately for waterways infrastructure, there is virtually no chance of the president’s budget getting passed in this form. Bipartisan support in Congress for locks and dams remains strong. Congress, not the president, controls the purse strings.

In this week’s Washington Waves, you can read of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi assuring listeners in Congress that there will be no cuts to waterways infrastructure funding—and adding that members of Congress have never paid any attention to a president’s budget in the 23 years he has served in Congress.