WASHINGTON and DES MOINES, Iowa – On Tuesday President Obama signed the first Water Resources Reform and Development Act in 7 years.
But the story of America’s inland waterways system starts all the way back in 1824, when Congress directed the Army Corps of Engineers to make inland waterway navigation possible.
The most recent chapter of that story took place yesterday, when President Barack Obama signed the latest Water Resources Reform and Development Act, or WRRDA, which does a few things to make inland waterway navigation flow more smoothly.
“Overall, the bill does a lot,” says transportation specialist Andrew Walmsley with American Farm Bureau, “both from environmental streamlining, to project approvals of allocating funding to where it should be going, in regards to the importance of our inland waterways and our ports.”
One notable way the new WRRDA bill accomplishes that, as the National Corn Growers’ Association observed, is by federalizing the cost of the long-delayed Olmstead Locks and Dam project on the Ohio River. 85 percent of the needed funds will come from the country’s general fund, while the rest will be sourced from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is a 20-cent per gallon fuel tax on those using the inland waterway system and covers half of the cost of maintenance projects.
The Olmstead Locks and Dam project was supposed to be completed in 1995, with a price tag of $775 million. Cost estimates for a 2024 completion date score the project at $3.1 billion.
The new WRRDA bill frees up about $105 million annually for other projects under the Inland Waterways Trust Fund; Walmsley says that’s a good precedent to set.
“When you look at locks and dams in our countries, some of them were built back in the ’20s,” says Walmsley. “There’s a strong desire that we need to be making better investments for our future in the inland waterways trust fund, so we’re going to be looking for that piece of the puzzle, as we go forward.
Commodity groups are now calling for an increase of six to nine cents on the tax that fills the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.