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River projects need funds, group says

| Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, 9:27 p.m.
Sewickley Herald
A barge passes under the Sewickley Bridge as it makes its way along a foggy Ohio River Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald

WASHINGTON — The threat to barge traffic posed by low water levels on the Mississippi River portends more disruptions if the federal government doesn't pay a bigger share of the cost of lock and dam projects, according to a lobbying group.

“This is just a foretaste of what would happen on a regular basis if we don't find a way to fund our infrastructure,” said Debra Colbert, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., based in Arlington, Va.

“It's always roads, rails and runways, but never rivers,” she said. “We always get left out of the equation. We need to be at the table with the big boys.”

The council is backing legislation that, while authorizing a 6-cent-per-gallon increase in the 20-cent fuel tax paid by commercial river-boat operators, would have the Army Corps of Engineers pay the full cost of construction projects of less than $100 million on inland waterways. The legislation would make the corps fully responsible for cost overruns and all construction projects on dams, regardless of cost.

Barges carrying grain, soybeans, coal, oil and other commodities on the Mississippi River have started to reduce their loads to navigate waters shrunk by the worst drought in 50 years. By the end of this month, rock structures in the river near southern Illinois threaten to curtail traffic as the river recedes, according to a Dec. 5 forecast from the National Weather Service.

Most costs of inland waterways improvements, including overruns, are split between the corps and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is financed by the barge-operator fuel tax.

The Ohio River in Western Pennsylvania is not experiencing drought-related problems, said James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.

“We have not had serious low-water problems,” McCarville said. “And with the current rain, it appears we are not headed that direction, at least on the upper Ohio River.”

On Monday, the Ohio River at the Emsworth Dam was at 16.06 feet, according to Army Corps of Engineers measurements.

The corps covers all costs of the inland system's operations and maintenance, which have averaged more than $500 million annually in recent years, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has announced plans to include similar measures in a broader waterworks bill that will include ocean port projects.

— Trib Total Media contributed.

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