Alexander: President's Proposed Budget for Corps of Engineers Does Not Properly Fund Water Infrastructure, Inland Waterways and Coastal Harbor Projects

Posted on March 2, 2016

Says proposed budget is an “enormous step backward” for Chickamauga Lock, and across the country 

“Our locks are the only way for many shippers to easily move things like grain, steel, fertilizer and coal up and down rivers, and having to unexpectedly shut them down for extended periods of time could be catastrophic for agriculture and other commodities." 

WASHINGTON, March 2, 2016 – U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said today President Obama’s proposal to cut $1.4 billion from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ budget would set maintenance of the nation’s water infrastructure “back more than a decade,” and would leave Chickamauga Lock stalled after two years of progress.

Sen. Alexander, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said at a budget hearing with the Corps that the U.S. should build on water infrastructure investments made last year. Last year, Congress provided a record nearly $6 billion to the Corps to invest in water infrastructure.

“This budget request is an enormous step backward. In fact, if we simply approved the president’s request, the Corps of Engineers would receive less than what Congress appropriated in fiscal year 2006, setting us back more than a decade,” Alexander said adding that 138 of the nation’s locks are over 50 years old. “Our locks are the only way for many shippers to easily move things like grain, steel, fertilizer and coal up and down rivers, and having to unexpectedly shut them down for extended periods of time could be catastrophic for agriculture and other commodities that rely on the locks to get their goods to market… President Obama should make funding for our nation's waterways a priority, but this year’s budget request certainly doesn't reflect that.”

President Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget request proposes to cut the Corps of Engineers’ budget by 23 percent. President Obama’s request ignores all but one of the nation’s inland waterway projects – Olmsted Locks and Dam in Illinois and Kentucky – and leaves an estimated $72 million in fees paid by barge owners to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for lock and dam maintenance unspent. Congress increased user fees that are paid into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund at the request of commercial barge owners who rely on the locks and dams to make their livings to speed up construction of locks and dams, including Chickamauga Lock.

“The biggest problem here is you are not spending the money you are collecting. Critical projects, such as replacing Chickamauga Lock in my home state of Tennessee, have been piling up for years due to a lack of funding, and many of us in Congress have recognized that we needed to take steps to increase funding for the Corps of Engineers to address this backlog,” Alexander said.

The fiscal year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations bill signed into law in December included enough funding to continue construction at the Olmsted Locks and Dam, the Lower Monongahela River Locks and Dams and the Kentucky Lock and Dam with approximately $29 million left available to continue construction of the new Chickamauga Lock. This funded Chickamauga Lock for the second consecutive year.

According to the Corps of Engineers Work Plan released in February, the $29.9 million for Chickamauga Lock will be enough to begin lock excavation, install anchors and construct a retaining wall. The Corps of Engineers estimates that it will need an additional $1.009 billion in future years to replace Chickamauga Lock.

Click here to view Sen. Alexander’s full opening statement. His written remarks as prepared follow:

We’re here today to review the president’s fiscal year 2017 budget request for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. 

Today I will focus my questions on three main areas:

  1. Making investments in our nation's water infrastructure a priority;
  2. Properly funding our inland waterways system; and
  3. Deepening and widening our coastal harbors.

Making Investments in Our Nation's Water Infrastructure a Priority

In my opinion, we should spend more, not less, on our nation's water infrastructure.

Last year, Congress made record investments in our water infrastructure by providing nearly $6 billion to the Corps of Engineers – the largest amount of funding for the Corps of Engineers in a regular appropriations bill. 

Instead of building on that investment, however, the president’s budget request this year proposes to cut funding for the Corps of Engineers to $4.620 billion, which is a $1.4 billion or 23% cut below FY16. 

This is an enormous step backwards.  In fact, if we simply approved the president’s request, the Corps of Engineers would receive less than what Congress appropriated in FY2006, setting us back more than a decade.

If we look at the condition of the locks and dams that the Corps operates across the country, for example, we should be able to see exactly why these investments are needed.

The National Academies of Science in 2011 said the Corps has 138 locks in operation that are over 50 years old, and that the average age of our locks is 58 years.

Using locks is the only way for inland waterway shippers to move things like grain, steel, fertilizer and coal up and down rivers, and having to unexpectedly shut them down for extended periods of time could be catastrophic for agriculture and other commodities that rely on them to get their goods to market.

Yet, as these facilities age, major upgrades, maintenance, and sometimes replacement is required, so I think it's fair to ask, why would the president cut funding for the Corps of Engineers at a time when more investment is needed?

President Obama should make funding for our nation's waterways a priority, but this year’s budget request certainly doesn't reflect that, and I am going to ask our witnesses why that is the case.

Properly funding our Inland Waterways System

The president's budget request proposes significant cuts to our 12,000 mile inland waterways system.

Critical projects, such as replacing Chickamauga Lock in my home state of Tennessee, have been piling up for years due to a lack of funding, and many of us in Congress have recognized that we needed to take steps to increase funding for the Corps of Engineers to address this backlog.  

First, Congress passed a law that reduced the amount of money that comes from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to replace Olmsted Lock, a project in Illinois and Kentucky that was soaking up almost all of the money that is available for inland waterway projects. 

Second, Congress worked with the commercial waterways industry to establish a priority list for projects that needed to be funded, on which Chickamauga ranks near the top, in fourth place.

And third, two years ago, working together in a bipartisan way, we increased the user fee increase that commercial barge owners asked to pay in order to provide more money to replace locks and dams across the country, including Chickamauga Lock.  These user fees are deposited into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund.

These steps increased the amount of funding that was available for inland waterways projects from about $85 million in FY2014 to now $106 million this year. 

These funds are matched with funds from the general treasury, which would allow the Corps of Engineers to make significant progress to address the backlog of work on our inland waterways.

Yet the president's budget request only proposes to spend $34 million from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, leaving about 75% of the available funds unspent. 

The budget request also only proposes to fund a single project, Olmsted Lock, and eliminates funding for the other three projects that received funding last year − Lower Monongahela, Kentucky Locks, and Chickamauga Lock.

Replacing Chickamauga Lock is important to all of Tennessee and if Chickamauga Lock closes, it will throw 150,000 more trucks onto I-75, yet the administration continues to not include it in the budget.

I've worked with Secretary Darcy and General Bostick over the past few years and I deeply appreciate that we found a way for construction to restart on Chickamauga Lock, which has now been funded for two consecutive years. 

But this budget proposal is a huge step backwards in this area. I will be asking our witnesses today why the administration has not proposed to spend all of the funds that have been collected, especially since commercial barge owners asked Congress to increase user fees they pay to improve our inland waterway infrastructure.

Deepening and Widening our Coastal Harbors

The budget request this year also fails to make critical investments in our nation's harbors. 

To maintain our economic competitiveness, our harbors need to be able to accept the larger ships that are expected to come through the Panama Canal. 

Significant work and funding is necessary to deepen and widen our coastal harbors to accommodate these bigger ships, yet the administration's budget proposes major cuts for this program as well. 

To ensure that these critical investments were made to our harbors, Congress enacted spending targets for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund in the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act. 

The target for FY17 is about $1.180 billion, yet the administration only proposes to spend $986 million, a shortfall of $194 million. 

So I will ask the witnesses how they   plan to make these important upgrades to our harbors without requesting sufficient resources to do it.

I'd also like to recognize our witnesses from the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation.

The Bureau of Reclamation delivers water to one of every five farmers in the West, irrigating more than 10 million acres of some of the most productive agriculture land in the country.

Although Reclamation doesn't manage water resources in Tennessee, I know of its deep importance to Senator Feinstein and other Senators on this subcommittee, and we look forward to hearing your testimony.

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