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Concerns Expressed Over Proposed Corps Civil Works Budget

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - March 5, 2004

Northwest and other members of Congress are concerned that President Bush's fiscal year 2005 budget is shortchanging the Army Corps of Engineers' civil works program.

The budget, released Feb. 2 and now being considered by congressional committees, cuts the construction program by $318 million, or 18 percent below this year, to $1.4 billion, and calls for canceling or suspending 492 waterway, flood control, and environmental projects and studies, according to the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee. Spending on pre-construction feasibility studies would be reduced by $26.3 million, to $90.5 million.

Also, annual operations and maintenance of flood control, harbors, ports and waterways would be reduced slightly, by $13 million, at a time when an Army Corps official told the subcommittee Feb. 26 at hearing on the budget that the agency has a $1 billion "critical maintenance backlog."

In addition under the $1.9 billion budget for operations and maintenance, priority would be giving to deep-draft ports ($539 million) and high commercial use waterways ($328 million), and funding would be limited for operation and maintenance of shallow-draft harbors (less than 14 feet in depth) and low commercial use waterways (less than 1 billion ton-miles per year), according to the subcommittee.

Among the Northwest construction projects that would be suspended is the three-foot deepening of the lower Columbia River shipping channel to accommodate larger modern ocean-going cargo vessels at Portland and other ports.

Congress provided $3.5 million this year to begin work on ecosystem restoration measures in the lower Columbia River as environmental mitigation for the impacts of dredging.

The inclusion of the deepening project on the proposed suspension list raises uncertainty about the administration's support for the $150 million channel improvement, said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who serves on the water resources subcommittee and represents the ports of Vancouver and Longview.

"The president on the one hand talks about jobs and on the other, cuts infrastructure funding that could cost us hundreds if not thousands of jobs up and down the river," Baird said, noting that Oregon, Washington and the port communities have already committed millions of dollars for their 35 percent share of the channel deepening's cost.

A separate item in Bush's FY2005 budget listed the project as a new construction start but left the amount of funding blank. Two prominent Northwest Republicans, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon and Rep. George Nethercutt of Washington, said that means Bush will back funding to finally start the deeper channel next year. Port officials are seeking $15 million.

"We're getting mixed signals from the administration," Baird said. "We need to move forward with this project."

Uncertainty can also create problems and economic costs, he complained. "Communities make resource commitments in anticipation of a project being carried through," and potential customers may make long-term decisions about investments based on the status of a project.

The channel provides a major shipping route for grain, wood products and other goods brought to port by barge and truck from as far away as Idaho and Montana.

Baird said he feared that if the deepening project is stymied, shippers may take their business to ports in the Puget Sound or Canada, costing business and jobs at Columbia River ports. "That's why we stand up for this spending," he said during the hearing. "I'm not at all ashamed to say these are worthwhile projects."

Baird said he was also concerned about the impact of budget reductions in maintenance dredging, which preventing ships from running aground in the Columbia channel.

A spokesman for the Army Corps' office in Portland, Matt Rabe, said Tuesday that the agency has not yet made a formal request for funding of the project to the White House budget office.

Northwest Corps officials are still negotiating a formal agreement with Portland and five other ports to fund and carry out the channel deepening. Once that is completed, the agreement and the project will be reviewed by Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works John Woodley, who will then make a funding request to the Office of Management and Budget.

At last week's subcommittee hearing, Woodley said the domestic budget cuts are part of Bush's effort to reduce overall federal deficit spending while continuing the war against terrorism.

CBB Staff
Concerns Expressed Over Proposed Corps Civil Works Budget
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 5, 2004

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