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Waterways Council worried by farm bill failure

Keywords: Tags  Waterways Council, Mike Toohey, waterways resource development act, Senate, House Transportation Committee, Farm Bill, drafts, Army Corps of Engineers user fees

CHICAGO — Shippers and vessel operators expect it might be fall before the U.S. House of Representatives drafts and votes on its own version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), but industry players say they’re fine with the delay as it will give them time to educate Washington on the transportation sector’s needs.

Waterways Council Inc. (WCI)—which represents various shippers; port, terminal and vessel operators; labor organizations and related groups—said it doesn’t want to rush through the House version, given last week’s failure to pass basic, long-standing funding devices like the farm bill.

The water resources bill, which authorizes increased funding for harbor maintenance, waterway improvements, flood-risk management, environmental restoration, dredging, and water supply and wastewater projects, passed the Senate last month (, May 16), but WCI said it doesn’t mind having more time before the companion bill moves forward.

WCI and its members must first educate freshmen representatives—especially libertarian and Tea Party legislators who often oppose new taxes—on what provisions in the bill do and do not constitute a tax, Michael J. Toohey, president and chief executive officer of the Arlington, Va.-based group, said during a press conference in Washington.

User fees paid by WCI members into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to support public-private projects such as facility improvements are not a tax, a spokeswoman told AMM June 25. WCI also wants to make sure new representatives understand members actually want an increase in their user fees in order to support infrastructure maintenance.

The collected user fee is 20 cents per gallon of diesel fuel, which is then placed into a trust fund. WCI supports a 6- to 9-cent increase in the fee, which finances 50 percent of projects built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps finances the other half.

Nearly half the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure members are freshmen, the WCI spokeswoman said, and don’t even know that the acronym WRDA is widely pronounced as "word-a." As a result, education is key, she said.

"The farm bill is a cautionary example—cautionary in that (committee) chairman Bill Shuster (R., Pa.) doesn’t want to step out with a bill unless everyone understands what’s at stake: The federal government’s responsibility for the waterways and the direct tie between infrastructure and water access to commerce, exports and how it helps our economy," the WCI spokeswoman said.

WCI isn’t aware of what the committee might do with the Senate’s WRDA bill, but the spokeswoman said the industry perceives the committee might be keen to draft its own version. A key item the industry wants—the increase in user fees—was stripped from the Senate version because the majority leader deemed any "revenue enhancement measure" was too difficult to pass, but the House bill could add that item back in, she said.

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