The Army Corps of Engineers, facing funding cuts for inland waterways and port work, must change how it operates to maintain the nation’s freight networks, according to a National Research Council report released Thursday.
The most feasible options for the Corps appear to be decommissioning projects of lesser importance and expanding partnerships with the private sector to help pay for repairs, maintenance and expansion projects. The prospects of increasing federal funding for Corps projects appear dim, considering the tight fiscal environment, and charging inland waterway users more could face congressional hurdles, according to the report by the arm of the National Academies of the United States.
“Many of these challenges are rooted in political issues and decisions, and resolving them will require leadership and cooperation from the U.S. Congress and executive branch,” the report states. “The lack of procedures for prioritizing operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation projects limits efficient investments in critical Corps infrastructure, and inhibits the Corps ability to divest or decommission water projects.”
The release of the report comes as the Senate works on the next Water Resources Development Act, the key vehicle for port project authorization. Inland waterway supporters want Congress to speed up Corps project processes, increase the fuel tax to boost funding and shift the burden for many projects away from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. In addition to wanting to speed up Corps projects, port supporters want Congress to increase the Corps' dredging work by reforming the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.
Opportunities for public-private partnerships for water infrastructure “are not immediately clear,” and such pacts could take years to develop once identified, the report notes. The more likely option for the Corps is to decommission obsolete project or ones of limited importance, but such a shift would require approval from Congress or the executive branch, according to the report.