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A Narrow View of the Appropriations Process May Mislead Readers

Updated: Jun 5, 2020


Congress has authorized $405 million to improve the river locks and dams of the United States over the next fiscal year.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal posted an article about federal spending on lock and dam repair along the Monongahela River in Ohio. Excerpts:

The Ohio and Mississippi River lock-and-dam systems are slated to receive an influx of federal money for much needed repairs, despite an uncertain future for the coal shipping industry they serve.

[River infrastructure in Ohio] is about to be flooded with federal cash. In December, Congress authorized $405 million to improve river locks and dams over the next fiscal year, the most since 2008….

Most of the money Congress approved for river-transport improvements is expected to go toward a few major construction projects in coal country along the Ohio River and its tributaries….

The money follows a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort spearheaded by the Waterways Council Inc. …

“U.S. Opens Spigot for Lock and Dam Fixes, Even as Coal Traffic Dwindles”

Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2016

Likely due to spacing constraints, this article seemed to take an unfortunately narrow view of the value of navigation locks and dams and the waterways they create.  I would like to broaden that perspective.

FIRST, the Inland Waterway transport System (IWTS) is an investment for the long-term.  The fact that coal production is down today, as the article notes, is not a reason to stop investing in waterway upgrades. The modern portion of the IWTS was constructed mostly in the 1950s-1970s.  It has transported a variety of commodities and other goods during that time and will be needed for the foreseeable future.

This is no different than roads, railroads, airports and coastal ports, locks and dams require regular investment to ensure steady operations.   We must invest to maintain them for the next 50 years and not stop investment just because a commodity has reduced shipments for a few years.

SECOND, the IWTS is an integral and necessary component of the nation’s transportation network and only 207 locks at 171 sites are needed to maintain the entire 11,000-mile network.  The rivers do the rest.  This 11,000-mile network of channels, locks, dams and related facilities is the safest and least expensive means to move commerce.  We literally could not add enough trucks or railroad cars to accommodate the goods moved on the inland waterways.

THIRD, any discussion of federal funding should note that half the funds appropriated come from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund which gets its income from a fuel-tax on commercial shipping, not general tax revenues, so shippers do have a valid interest in how that money is budgeted, appropriated, and spent.

FOURTH AND PERHAPS MOST IMPORTANT, waterway locks and dams provide multiple benefits beyond shipping.  Some provide flood control benefits, others, particularly those near towns and cities, provide a pool that enables water supply intakes to function, especially during low-flow summer months.

The pools also maintain a sufficient volume of water to enable metropolitan sewage treatment systems to meet discharge standards.  They also provide recreation and other commercial benefits.  Witness the resurgence of waterside facilities at almost every city and town bordering a navigable river.  One study suggests that these benefits exceed navigation benefits.

Budgeting and budget decisions at the Army Corps of Engineers seek to maintain all the important infrastructure for which they are responsible. Navigation, flood control, hydropower, environmental and other facilities are built to serve multiple purposes and constituencies for the long term.

Many disparate issues need to be taken into account during Corps budget processes. This is especially true for Corps budget decisions on waterway funding.

Gary Loew Senior Advisor

A member of the Dawson team since 2014, Gary is the former Chief, Programs Division, of the US Army Corps of Engineers, where he was responsible for the annual civil works budget.


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