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New federal waterways law boosts funding for nation’s locks, dams, overdue dredging

Sep 3, 2014 03:23 PM
At Olmsted Locks and Dam, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed the locks in 2002, but they sit idle until the dam portion is finished. The recent waterways bill restructures funding for the project.

Brian Gauvin

At Olmsted Locks and Dam, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed the locks in 2002, but they sit idle until the dam portion is finished. The recent waterways bill restructures funding for the project.

President Obama has signed the nation’s first waterways infrastructure bill in seven years, improving the outlook for navigation on the inland rivers, Great Lakes and coastal channels.

With the passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) in May, industry groups are pleased that commercial waterways — the backbone of much of the domestic commerce throughout the nation — are finally being given recognition.

The single most important project to benefit is the Ohio River’s much-delayed and over-budget Olmsted Locks and Dam. The $3.1 billion reconstruction will now be funded 85 percent by the federal government and 15 percent by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. The new funding framework will free up about $105 billion per year for other trust fund projects.

“Previously it was a 50/50 split,” said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of Waterways Council Inc. “Without this we would not be able to get to our other projects and we could have been looking at a date as late as 2090 for the others.”

Of the 34 projects covered in the WRRDA, the Waterways Council is involved in 24. Colbert said the new law takes in the council’s four top-priority systems. Aside from Olmsted, the other three are the Lower Monongahela River Locks and Dams 2, 3 and 4, on the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania, and two sites on the Tennessee River — the Kentucky Lock Addition in Kentucky and Chickamauga Lock in Tennessee.

In the Army Corps of Engineers’ (ACE) construction account, the Olmsted project received funding at $160 million and the Lower Monongahela project received $9 million, as requested by the administration.

The Lower Monongahela project replaced the nearly 100-year-old fixed-crest dam at Braddock Locks and Dam with a gated dam. It will remove Locks and Dam 3 in Elizabeth, Pa., and construct two new larger locks at Locks and Dam 4 in Charleroi. The Kentucky project is to put in a 110-by-1,200-foot lock.

While Congress has anted up, it also has taken away in the form of deauthorizing $18 billion in planned works that have either languished or are deemed to be unimportant for security or are unessential. “None of our priority items have been deauthorized,” Colbert said.

For the Great Lakes, the provisions in the new law are equally beneficial. Harbor deepening has been a particular need in recent years as lakers often cannot carry full loads.

Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, said operators are pleased with “particularly the improvement in the financing from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. It will take time to get to 100 percent, but things are moving very definitely in that direction.”

The fund collects $1.5 billion a year for dredging, but spends much less.
“Just as important,” said Nekvasil, “the Great Lakes are being treated as a single entity, like the river system, and not as 60 individual ports each fighting with one another. There are 18 million cubic yards of sediment to be moved out.”

The most important dredging project for the association is the St. Marys River, where the Soo Locks are located. “In 1997 at high water, a vessel could take on 70,000 to 72,000 tons,” Nekvasil said, “but this went down to as low as 60,000 tons and last year was only 66,000 tons.”

The Waterways Council and the rest of the industry continue the campaign to increase the barge diesel fee, by as much as 9 cents a gallon from the existing 20 cents a gallon. It wants the government to redefine major rehabilitation projects eligible for funding through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, increasing the current level defined in law from $14 million to $20 million.

Inland waterways operators reckon the WRRDA will probably result in a big boost for them.

“It’s good to see the inland infrastructure being recognized for its importance to the economy,” said Bill Barr, vice president at West Virginia-based Amherst Madison Inc. and a member of the board of directors of the American Waterways Operators. “Remember that 17 percent of the intercity commerce moves on the waterways, at 2 percent of the cost of other forms of transport.”

He said the law comes just when shipping and ports are gearing up for the expanded Panama Canal, which will lead to more traffic through ports such as New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., and hence more cargo going on inland waterways.

Just as important for the industry is the streamlining of the ACE processing and approval of projects from the current 10 to 15 years to just three.

For the Port of Savannah, the law means that main channel deepening can start soon, increasing the depth by 5 feet to 47 feet. The entrance channel will be extended by seven miles and the Kings Island turning basin enlarged. Just when this will happen partly depends on the Project Partnership Agreement to be worked out with ACE to fix the proportion of costs between the state and the federal government for the $706 million project.

Port Executive Director Curtis Foltz said he expects a binding agreement within 90 days. Georgia has already put aside $266 million. The port estimates that with post-Panamax vessels calling, U.S. companies will save 20 to 40 percent on transportation.

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