Corps Details Cost, Labor Challenges For Users Board

Members of the Inland Waterways Users Board (IWUB) asked pointed questions of Corps of Engineers presenters at the board’s 99th meeting. The meeting was held April 13 in Pittsburgh, Pa., and it was attended by Assistant Secretary of the Army-Civil Works Michael Connor, who spoke.

The meeting followed a tour of the Charleroi Lock and Dam project for IWUB members the day before. Charleroi is one of the many Corps projects facing significant cost adjustments. Two topics that recurred again and again in the meeting presentations were the impact of inflation and materials shortages on cost overruns and the challenges of labor shortages to project schedules.

The keynote presentation, “Financial Report for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund,” was presented by Mark Pointon, designated federal officer for the IWUB. Among the charts and graphics he presented was one that showed the balance of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund as $236,942.972.00.

Pointon conceded that the Corps is “going to have to do better at cost estimates,” and he said that an “optimism bias” within the Corps can result in underestimates of project costs. He invited IWUB members to “help us to work through optimism bias.”

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Pointon said the consolidation of Corps design services inside the Inland Navigation Design Center was a cost-saving measure, avoiding duplicative work and concentrating expertise. He said the INDC has “stolen the best and brightest” from within the Corps.

Damon Judd, president and CEO of Marquette Transportation Company and an IWUB member, read a statement into the public record that spoke of board members’ “disappointment” at the recent announcement of zero dollars from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund being allocated to inland navigation this year and at cost overruns for projects they had believed fully funded.

“There is still some uncertainty on the available balance of the IWTF, and this is an absolutely critical starting point for us,” he said. “The magnitude of cost increases and timeline slippages are alarming.” He decried “mixed signals and confusion” on the Corps’ project capabilities, but he ended on a conciliatory note, saying, “We know the Corps is working hard to manage extended timelines with limited resources.”

The remaining presentations covered all the outstanding lock and dam projects, and The Waterways Journal will be providing continuing coverage on those presentations.

David Frantz, inland navigation program manager, gave a thought-provoking presentation on remote lock operations, which he said is a proven technology that has been successfully used by other countries in operating their locks. Some IWTF money has been used in studies examining ways to integrate remote lock operations into future projects.

Labor issues were a recurring theme. Unemployment remains at 3 percent, and all types of construction employment are competing for workers. Several presenters said that labor shortages extended timelines of projects and added to the already high cost pressures of materials and supply lines.