Back in the bad old days of chronic underfunding and “fix as fail,” it was frustratingly familiar to see the costs of crucial lock and dam projects balloon out of control as stop-start appropriations from Congress made planning and execution uncertain. Industry often argued that better, more consistent funding—“efficient” funding as we called it—would save money in the long run, and industry was proven right when Congress finally stepped up on Olmsted Lock and Dam, saving hundreds of millions of dollars of projected costs and completing the project more quickly. Uncertainty and delay costs money, and efficient funding saves money and delivers results.
Thankfully, this year’s budget request did not include any proposals for new inland waterways user fees—previously a common feature of budget requests. As we all know, lock and dam infrastructure has recently gotten two huge extra shots of funding, in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. The funding from those two bills begins, at least, to address decades of under-investment.
At the March 9 press conference announcing the Corps of Engineers’ requested budget, assistant secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Michael Connor said this year’s Army Civil Works budget request is “the largest in history” and that it “reaffirms [this administration’s] vision of facilitating safe, reliable and sustainable commercial navigation to improve the resilience of our nation’s manufacturing and supply chain.”
That’s why it struck such a discordant note when Chief of Engineers Gen. Scott Spellmon explained why he is not requesting any funds from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund this year: “In my budget recommendation from the Corps to the assistant secretary earlier this year, I did not report a capability for the use of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, and the reason is, we have a massive amount of work ongoing currently on our inland waterways, and let me just highlight them. So you’re familiar with the work on Lower Mon out on the Charleroi, Kentucky Lock and Dam, Chick Lock and Dam, the Upper Ohio, specifically Montgomery, Lock and Dam 25 on the Upper Mississippi, the 12-foot deepening down on the MKARNS and certainly the Three Rivers project. … And although it’s not an Inland Waterways Trust Fund project, I already mentioned the $1.3 billion effort currently underway on the Soo Lock on Phase 3. This is a massive amount of investment in our inland waterways. Certainly, it has stretched us. And frankly, one of the criteria when I take my recommendations to Secretary Connor is, we want to finish what we start, and we have a lot of work ongoing currently on inland waterways, and we want to get this work finished before we open up the next round of important projects. We know there’s a lot of work ahead of us. Let us get finished with what we’ve got underway, and then we’ll open up with the next round.”
The pause in the resort to IWTF funds means there will be no new starts in the 2024 fiscal year. That affects projects such as the Brazos River Floodgates Project. Congress could change that, of course; but that’s not likely at a time when Republicans have called for an across-the-board cut of 20 percent to Biden’s overall budget request.
The problem with calling pause in the middle of the game on projects like Brazos and Chickamauga is that it again stretches out construction times and increases costs—especially at a time when inflation, while somewhat moderating, is still high.
The reasons for delays may be different than in the past, but the result is the same. Projects that we believed were “funded to completion” are no longer, and will need additional funds. Lock 25 will need another $100 million, Kentucky Lock will need another $332 million, and Montgomery Lock and Dam will need an additional $200 million, according to the Inland Waterways Users Board at its August 2022 meeting.
The Corps’ claim of being stretched to capacity raises many questions that we hope will be examined. Is it a question of lack of capacity among contractors and Corps workers? If so, what can be done to address that? Are regulatory barriers still an issue? How can the process be streamlined and sped up? These are not new questions; they have been raised many times before. They may come up as Congress considers the Corps’ budget request.
At a time when China is building whole ports overseas at breakneck speed, when the “whole of government” is supposed to be addressing climate issues and when everyone on all sides agrees that maximizing water transportation is the greenest way to address transportation emissions, it’s discouraging that we are still wrestling with these questions.