President’s Infrastructure Speech Offers Encouragement

June 12, 2017

President Donald Trump’s speech on his infrastructure agenda in Cincinnati June 7 offered a rousing campaign-style call to arms on behalf of infrastructure—but nothing new in the way of specifics.

On the one hand, the level of attention Trump is bringing to waterways infrastructure issues is welcome and not routine for recent presidents of either party. With the Ohio River as a backdrop, Trump was flanked by his secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, his secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, and Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, all of whom spoke briefly before the president took the podium. Pruitt spoke of the dependence of agriculture on the waterways, saying, “Some of our [agricultural] competitors can produce as efficiently as we can, but they can’t get to market as efficiently.”

In between pushing other aspects of his agenda (from repealing Obamacare to lessening the regulatory burden on businesses), Trump mentioned the kinds of figures about waterways commerce often heard by anyone who attends waterways events, but that are notable for coming from the mouth of the president. “Restoring America requires safe, reliable and modern infrastructure,” he said. And he specifically mentioned the lock shutdowns of recent years as something America “could no longer tolerate.”

Despite its disagreements with some elements of Trump’s infrastructure agenda, the Waterways Council Inc. is pleased with the prominence that Trump is giving waterways issues. In a statement, it said, “WCI applauds President Trump’s visit to the heartland and for his speech today that will surely bring heightened attention to the investment needs of the inland waterways system. Our country has not seen this kind of leadership on infrastructure since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal to build our locks and dams, or since the 1950s by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to construct the National Defense and Interstate Highway system. Today, presidential leadership was demonstrated once again by emphasizing the importance of the inland waterways transportation system and this critical national infrastructure with the backdrop of the river itself. As President Trump said, the nation will rebuild rivers, along with roadways, runways and railways.

This level of attention brings a welcome spotlight to waterways infrastructure but also heightens expectations. Trump’s team has previously said that $200 billion of “direct federal investment”—a figure he repeated in the June 7 speech—is supposed to “generate” another $800 billion in “other” investment from state, local and / or private sources, to make up the $1 trillion he promised on the campaign trail in infrastructure investment. The mix of “other” money has not yet been specified. Details will have to wait until the fall, when the president’s full infrastructure agenda will be rolled out.

As we said last week, the Trump administration’s actual spending proposals so far regarding locks, dams and waterways—released in a preliminary proposed budget—show a welcome will to speed up lock and dam repair, but they cut back in some areas while advancing others with no apparent coherence. The barge industry remains strongly opposed to any plan that involves private entities levying tolls on public structures or waterways.

Congress will have the final say on the president’s proposed budget, his infrastructure plans and how much is invested in our under-maintained waterways, locks and dams.

In the meantime, our industry advocates, taking advantage of the heightened attention to these issues brought by the president, must continue their important work of educating the key members of Congress.

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