Lawmaker Criticizes Attempt
by Libby Quaid, Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- A Bush administration plan to shift dollars away from upgrading locks and dams on the nation's rivers could leave waterways vulnerable to terrorist attacks, a GOP lawmaker says.
House members quizzed top officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as Appropriations Committee hearings began Wednesday on the agency's budget for next year.
At issue is a proposal to pay for routine maintenance and operations out of the Inland Waterway Trust Fund. The fund, which collects taxes on diesel fuel from the barge industry, is supposed to be tapped for major construction to upgrade ports, locks, and dams.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an agency review found that safety upgrades were needed at 85 locks, dams, hydropower plants, and other facilities out of 306 that were reviewed.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., asked how the corps could finish security upgrades when it is also facing a $1 billion backlog in regular maintenance and operations. "If we divert that money to operations and maintenance, aren't we then unable to complete ongoing projects?" she asked. "How, then, are we going to be able to make sure that not only are projects completed, but also, how are we going to protect these waterways from terrorist activity if the money's being diverted elsewhere?"
Ohio GOP Rep. David L. Hobson, the chairman of the energy and water spending subcommittee, said the trust fund will run out of money in three years if the corps taps it for routine needs. The corps' overall budget this year is $4.6 billion, and the White House budget office is asking for $4.194 billion for next year.
Despite the criticism, lawmakers did not press corps officials for answers. "You're being very statesmanlike in light of what happened to the last person in your job," Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, told Les Brownlee, acting assistant Army secretary for civil works. He was referring to Mike Parker, whom President Bush fired last year after Parker criticized the administration's planned budget cuts.
Brownlee was diplomatic in answering Emerson: "Certainly, to use those (funds) for inland waterways or harbors where it's accumulated a balance would appear to be legal." He added the agency proposes to use $104 million of its regular operations funds for security improvements.
Emerson and her allies argue that Midwestern farmers are saddled with a depression-era navigation system that was not designed to handle today's massive shipments of grain and other commodities.
However, critics of the Army Corps of Engineers want to use the trust fund for other purposes because they dispute the need for the big construction projects it funds.
"Many of the corps' navigation projects are based on questionable economic and environmental analysis," said Scott Faber, a spokesman for the group Environmental Defense. "The net effect is that we've needlessly destroyed some rivers based on grossly optimistic predictions of future barge traffic." Faber mentioned an earlier National Academy of Sciences review that said the agency was biased in favor of huge construction projects.
Last year, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., proposed to use the industry-funded trust money for routine maintenance and operations on less-used waterways. His measure would have saved taxpayer dollars for the operations of rivers with heavy traffic, such as the Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio rivers and the Intercoastal Waterway. His bill died in committee.
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