Friday, January 13, 2012

Columbia/Snake River Navigation and User Fees

Inland waterway infrastructure (navigation locks) in the Columbia/Snake and Mississippi rivers is aging and is in need of billions of dollars to keep it viable. Users (commercial barge operators) currently pay a 20-cent-per-gallon diesel fuel tax that goes to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for sharing rehabilitation costs with the federal government – 50/50. 

Congress is wrestling with waterways funding. Inland waterway users contribute only 8% of the costs while coastal port users pay 80% via the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The waterways industry and its stakeholder’s support increasing the fuel tax 6-to-9 cents per gallon with the caveat that the federal government pays 100% of the cost of projects up to $100 million. Over $100 million costs are shared 50%. 

President Obama is recommending a new fee for all inland waterways and a second fee for those moving through the locks in addition to the fuel tax. This proposal would more than double user fees reducing the federal subsidy for inland shippers. Congressman Mike Doyle (D-PA) bemoaned the lack of adequate funding for navigation for his Pittsburg district but warned that Congress “was more likely” to increase cost-sharing requirements than to reduce them. 

With the stress on the federal budget users should contribute substantially more to keep navigation waterways viable.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is pushing for legislation that would help Washington State modernize its intermodal freight network including ports, freight railways, air cargo infrastructure and highways as a jobs program. Her recent comments were made at the Port of Pasco’s Big Industrial Center that supports 600 jobs - an operation that depends on efficient freight transportation infrastructure.  

Lower Snake River Dam Removal and Loss of Navigation in the Snake

Senator Cantwell is correct that transportation and port infrastructure are indeed critical for Washington State especially in the lower Columbia River. Adequate funding for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund via increased user fees to support the Columbia River locks will be essential. Currently there are potential issues with the John Day Dam and lock infrastructure that could require considerable investment.

The Northwest congressional delegation needs to champion enhancing user fees to ensure viability of Columbia River navigation. The delegation should also initiate a process to examine the efficacy of federal investment to retain/remove the lower Snake River dams to recover wild salmon.

The vision for navigation in the Snake was all about an economic boon that never materialized. Tonnage in the Snake that peaked in the mid 1990s will not return. After dam removal, commodities that were transported by barge can be moved by rail and truck primarily to and from the ports in the Pasco area.   

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