Dredging for Dollars?

Dredging for Dollars?

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Several members of the House and Senate members are trying to channel Congress'' transportation attention to waterways.

Hoping to fight off attempts to cut funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lawmakers from various regions formed the House and Senate Waterways Caucuses.

"We feel by coming together and focusing our efforts in a collective fashion we will be able to make sure we have adequate funding for the Corps," said House Waterways Caucus Co-Chairman Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif.

Congressional caucuses are a way for lawmakers with shared interests to band together, although the interest common to many of them is federal money.

Last year, Congress appropriated $4.5 billion for the Corps. This year, President Bush requested $4.2 billion for the Corps, about the same as his request last year. Corps supporters say $5.5 billion is needed to begin improving the nation''s aging lock and dam system.

The United States has 12,000 miles of inland and intracoastal waterways, which serve 41 states. The 10,900 miles of navigable domestic waterways carry approximately 12 percent of the nation''s freight. Agriculture products - largely grains and soybeans - are the top goods shipped on inland waterways. Of the nation''s soybean exports, 95 percent move by barge.

The congressional caucus members said they also are concerned about homeland security and tourism uses of the routes. They want to address flood control issues, water supply projects, dredging and navigation projects on the waterways.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., spearheaded the caucus''s creation. His coastal congressional district includes a stretch of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. McIntyre said the Corps'' ability to dredge shallow waterways is being compromised by Corps funding levels.

Upper Mississippi River locks and dams also are high on the priority list but the new caucus says it wants to look beyond the high-profile waterways.

"It''s as important as rebuilding and expanding the highways is," Doolittle said.

Rep, Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., said inadequate funding for wateways will hurt the United States in the international trade arena. "We''ve maintained our competitive advantage because our ability to transport goods to market is cheaper," Hulshof said.

National Waterways Alliance President Worth Hager said locks and dams need attention now, before disaster strikes. "We''re looking at catastrophic failures," she said.

Waterways proponents emphasize the safety record of barge traffic as well as the lower levels of emissions they produce compared to truck traffic. One barge has the capacity of about 60 trucks or 15 rail cars.

One political sandbar in the caucus'' course is that White House is trying to hold down spending but most of the caucus members are Republicans and so unlikely to defy the president and party leaders.

Corps Deputy Director of Civil Works Thomas (Fred) Caver Jr., said the Corps desperately needs money to make improvements to locks and dams and to stay on top of dredging needs.

"We believe there is a lack of understanding and appreciation for this growing problem in our country," he said. "It''s sort of a creeping crisis as opposed to one that''s confronting us an emergency today."

But the administration representative wouldn''t talk about direct funding questions. "We support the president''s budget request," he said.

"The amount in the president''s budget is too low," Doolittle said. "It''s a very tight situation this year. And I''m not going to hold out for a lot more."