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Partnerships key to waterways revival

Keywords: Tags  waterways, Water Resources Reform and Development Act, transportation, infrastructure, steel, iron ore, Congress, Michael J. Toohey Waterways Council

NEW YORK — Public-private partnerships could help repair and expand U.S. waterways infrastructure, but progress will be slow, according to remarks made at a congressional policy panel July 10.

There’s an $8-billion backlog in water-related infrastructure projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with 26 ongoing inland waterway projects, according to Michael J. Toohey, president and chief executive officer of the Arlington, Va.-based Waterways Council. At the current rate, many projects will not be delivered until 2060 or 2090 even though funds were authorized in some cases in 2007.

"We’re very interested in exploring how to make (public-private partnerships) work, because otherwise we’re going to wait for a very long time," Toohey said during the roundtable.

The recently enacted Water Resources Reform and Development Act (, May 21) encourages partnerships with the private sector in maintaining and improving locks and dams, as well as dredging and expanding ports. However, policymakers have yet to meet at length with the private investors who could provide the funding, and are still brainstorming financing methods and mechanisms.

"That’s some of our next steps—to start reaching out to some of those folks who actually bring those dollars to the table," Jim Hannon, who leads the Army Corps of Engineers’ operations and regulatory division, said during the panel.

Many private investors would not be interested in projects smaller than $500 million, he said, noting that they tend to favor projects of $1 billion to $2 billion. The private sector also requires a quicker return on investment and faster project construction than those typically seen in public water works, panelists said.

The iron and steel industry relies heavily on inland waterways to transport iron ore and finished steel, a situation that came into sharp focus earlier this year when the Great Lakes froze and hampered steel production (, May 12).

Rep. Candice Miller (R., Mich.) had to obtain $30 million from state lawmakers last year to dredge the state’s harbors as water levels fell dangerously low. "Somehow there has to be a new model developed" for financing water-related projects, she said, suggesting state and local contributions as one option.

Panelists and congressional lawmakers also debated levying fees and taxes on those who use waterways, including businesses and recreational users, although they did not raise specific proposals.

Industry even lobbied to increase its own 20-cent-per-gallon levy by 6 to 9 cents, but that failed to become law despite little opposition as the tax measure became entangled in controversial comprehensive tax reform, Toohey said.

"When everything’s said and done, it’s really just money," Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D., Mass.) said. "There just isn’t enough money. And to be perfectly honest ... Congress is not willing to do what we need to do to address these issues."

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