Planning for the future
Funding deficits have long plagued the corps.
“Funds are being spent as fast as they’re coming in, but we’re not able to efficiently fund the projects that are already under construction,” Jones says. “Any new construction, such as the modernization of the upper Mississippi, is being delayed until such funds become adequate — and at this rate it would be 10 or 20 years from now before anything would get started. [Construction] isn’t sitting in limbo, it’s more like it’s limping along.”
While the stimulus package’s “shovel ready” order did not give the corps the ability to take on extensive rehabilitation, this funding was used to take smaller projects off the growing list and invest in the components should a failure occur.
“We may not be able to prevent a lock failure, but it’s not a catastrophe if you can repair the failure quickly,” Jones says. For example, stimulus dollars funded the fabrication of critical spare parts and replacement gates.
Critics of the current administration point to President Obama’s Fiscal Year 11 budget as a potential road block to waterway improvements. While President Obama’s FY 11 budget request does propose a slight reduction in the corps civil works funding ($4.939 billion or 3.77% less than 2010), it is not as drastic as anticipated.
“We fully support the President’s goals of investing in America’s infrastructure and doubling exports over the next five years,” says James Walker, navigation branch chief, operations division, Army Corps of Engineers. “However, accomplishing these goals will likely require investing more, not less, in transportation infrastructure such as inland navigation.”
Some suggest cuts hover around 10%; however, as points out when comparing apples to apples — President Obama’s FY 10 budget against the FY 11 budget — a different story emerges, as Congress historically restores a large percentage of this funding through earmarks during the appropriations process.
“We did see a reduction in the navigation funding, but it might not be as large as many folks might have thought it would be,” Walker says. “One of the challenges is that many people want to compare the FY 10 appropriations to the FY 11 budget, which can be a bit of a distortion. For those who want to see more put into it and seek to talk about Draconian, it’s a matter of how they’re trying to view the half a glass of water. It’s not like anyone has their facts wrong; it’s how they’re choosing to compare things.”
According to the Waterways Council, the FY 11 budget taps into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for $82.4 million in matching funds for inland navigation construction and major rehabilitation — which would ultimately provide new project investments of $158.1 million, 1.7% less than last year’s request.
“The [Inland Waterway Trust Fund] is deficient, making it impossible to carry on our modernization at this time,” Jones says. Once funds are available, modernization of the upper Mississippi will start with locks on the southern end of the system and work its way up the river.
Waterway reform a top priority
Despite, the obstacles — financing and otherwise — progress is being made.
The Waterways Council, Inc. and the corps have worked closely to create a 20-year comprehensive capital development plan for the inland waterways with hopes to move the plan through Congress and have it adopted into legislation. The goals of the plan are to prioritize projects on the rivers; to bring reform to how projects are delivered; and to develop an improved funding mechanism to meet the priority need of the system.
Today, the corps decides which projects get funding on a project-by-project basis, with interests driven by competition between the various corps districts; the plan proposes taking a prioritization approach across the entire inland waterway system as opposed to relying on which navigation project has the most political muscle to secure its annual funding.