AT press time, the Senate continued to debate its Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which provides new authorization for flood protection and port improvement projects and upgrades to the nation's aging lock and dam infrastructure.
Mike Steenhoek, director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said the two biggest issues of importance to agriculture within the bill are sufficient funding for locks and dams and full use of the revenue generated via the Harbor Maintenance Tax.
One of the main requests from agricultural interests was for completion of the Olmstead lock and dam on the Ohio River to be financed through federal funding. The project has been seen as the poster child for government bureaucracy and delayed funding as costs have skyrocketed since it was first authorized in 1988.
Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the manager's amendment will stop money from being sucked out of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for such things as the Olmstead project and instead will help deepen ports, as was intended.
The manager's amendment to incrementally increase allocations to dredging and harbor maintenance until, eventually, all revenue generated by the tax will be used for its intended purpose is something Steenhoek called a "positive step."
"While we and other freight interests would like immediate 100% allocation of the revenue in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be used for its intended purposes, an incremental approach to achieving that objective is a favorable development," he said.
Steenhoek said the questions that remain are: What's the new source of revenue that will allow increased investment for harbor maintenance projects? What are the spending offsets that will allow revenue to be redirected to harbor maintenance projects?
"I see a willingness to direct additional revenue to this issue, but I still don't see where the money will come from," he explained.
Sen. Robert Casey (D., Pa.) was trying to generate support for raising the user fee on barge diesel fuel from 20 cents to 29 cents. Both barge carriers and their customers, including agricultural shippers, support the increase, which will provide the financial wherewithal to initiate and complete lock projects authorized by WRDA.
Revenue-raising measures must originate in the House first, so the amendment is essentially a "placeholder" for when the House takes up its version of the bill later this summer, Walmsley noted.
Walmsley said he remains optimistic that a final bill can make it to the President's desk this year. Normally, WRDA is updated biannually, but the last bill was approved in 2007.
Groups such as the Soy Transportation Coalition have advocated for deeper reforms and smarter allocations for maintaining and prioritizing infrastructure projects.
Walmsley noted that the Senate bill incorporates some good reforms, such as streamlining and how the Army Corps of Engineers prioritizes projects, including capping the Olmstead project.
"We're definitely moving in the right direction with a more sustainable path on infrastructure funding," he said.