Congressman Addresses Waterways Funding Efforts

A recent virtual meeting of the Paducah Propeller Club included remarks from the congressman representing far western Kentucky concerning federal legislation closely involving the river industry.

About 20 people attended the video conference meeting live June 9. It was then posted on the club’s Facebook page.

In opening remarks, Club president Caleb King, the operations manager for the Towing Vessel Inspection Bureau, announced the club’s maritime person of the year is Kent Furlong, president of the Hines Furlong Line. Due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the club did not host a Maritime Day ceremony May 16, so Furlong will be formally recognized in conjunction with the club’s Christmas social, which is scheduled for December 3. As is traditional, it is scheduled on the same day as the Seamen’s Church Institute’s annual River Bell awards luncheon in Paducah.

Mitzi Mason, general manager for the Paducah division of Paducah Rigging and chair of the club’s annual golf tournament, announced the tournament has been postponed until September 18. The tournament is the club’s only fundraiser and has helped previously to fund the annual Christmas social, a local branch of the U.S. Navy Sea Cadet Corps and scholarships for high school students. Lori Wasbutsky, senior risk analyst and leave supervisor for American Commercial Barge Line and the club’s scholarship chair, announced the club recently gave two $1,500 scholarships this year to two students: Margaret Butts and Madeline Kerr.

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A representative from The Waterways Journal also gave a brief presentation on challenges and impacts of COVID-19. A slowdown in production and manufacturing have meant the towboat and barge industry are seeing reduced capacity utilization in the barge market. Barges are staying tied up or moving far less of certain products, including petroleum and coal, and that economic pressure has been felt up and down the supply chain and at ports of all sizes. It also comes on the heels of extended flooding in a challenging 2019 season. At the same time, companies have faced increasing costs for virus mitigation efforts.

Despite the challenges, however, companies within the industry were quick to put the safety and health of their employees first, worked together to find new supply chains for groceries, paper products and personal protective equipment, put into place social distancing adaptations, including changing transportation arrangements for some crews, and quickly enhanced hygiene and sanitation protocols. They also used video conferencing and other technology in an unprecedented way, including for some audits and inspections. Along the way they also resisted once again the call from some others to waive the century old Jones Act, requiring American-built, -owned and -operated vessels crewed by America’s mariners.

U.S. Rep. James Comer (R-Tompkinsville, Ky.) represents 35 of western Kentucky’s counties, including 621 miles of river segmented among the Lower Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland and Green rivers. Earlier this year he testified before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He advocated for additional funding in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to reduce the timeframe for completing 23 priority projects to 20 years vs. 40 years.

Comer spoke about the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), calling it one of the few bipartisan acts making its way through Congress. He said although it is subject to change along with so many other things because of COVID-19, he does not believe WRDA project funding will be affected by any offset necessary for future COVID-19 relief measures, if implemented.

Comer also gave extended remarks relating to WRDA.

“As Congress works to reauthorize WRDA this year, I voiced my support for several vital projects for the waterways industry,” Comer said. “As you mentioned earlier, in February I testified at the transportation and infrastructure committee to advocate for reforming the cost share for new construction and major rehabilitation projects on the inland waterways transportation system. I strongly support adjusting the cost share to 25 percent Inland Waterways Trust Fund and 75 percent general funds for Inland Waterways Trust Fund construction projects. Additionally, I’ve expressed support for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and dredging projects.”

In late April, the Senate introduced its draft of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020. Waterways Council Inc. had requested an Inland Waterways construction project fund cost share ratio change from 50/50 general funds/Inland Waterways Trust Fund to a 75 percent/25 percent split. The Senate bill included an increase to a 65 percent/35 percent cost share arrangement for construction projects. Comer called that a strong start.

“If enacted, this cost share increase will ensure that projects are completed in an efficient and timely manner,” Comer said.

The House was accepting member priority requests until May 1, and the committee received more than 1,000 member requests, Comer said, adding, “so I know the T&I committee is working through those and on their draft.”
As of now, the bill is expected to be on the floor in late July, he said.

“I’m optimistic the House and Senate will get this done as soon as possible, before the expiration,” Comer said.

He said he hopes that the 75/25 ratio will become a reality in the final bill and added that amending the cost ratio is the largest bipartisan request the House had.

“I think the House could still get to 75/25, but it will be a win to increase it, and I know exactly how much you all depend on that.”

King also read a member question to Comer related to legislation under consideration regarding the Coast Guard user fee for inspected vessels. The fee is currently $1,030 annually for each inspected towing vessel, regardless of whether the inspection is performed by the Coast Guard or if it is carried out under the authority of a Third Party Organization (TPO).

King said members understand this imbalance is being addressed in the upcoming Coast Guard authorization bill. The House has passed its version of the bill, which suspends the collection of user fees for all towing vessels until the Coast Guard publishes a final rule to establish a user fee specific for towing vessels. The Senate Commerce Committee has approved its version of the bill, which suspends the user fees only for towing vessels using the towing safety management system option, under the auspices of a TPO instead of the Coast Guard.

King asked Comer whether he had any insight on when the full Senate might vote on the bill and what the user fee structure might ultimately look like.

Comer said he does not think the Senate will take up the Coast Guard authorization bill separately until there is a negotiated House-Senate agreement, and will pass that so that the Senate only has to act once. Negotiations between the House and Senate have been ongoing for many months, Comer said, “but as of right now they remain far apart on several issues.”

Finally, Comer also encouraged the Propeller Club to continue educating new House members about the Jones Act and the importance of the inland waterways to America’s economy. That will be especially important, he said, because he believes regardless of who wins the presidency in November, it is likely Congress will have a major infrastructure bill sometime next year and that he knows it is important to discuss locks and dams in that legislation along with roads and bridges.