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Overriding circumstances: However obliquely, Congress' reversal of Bush's water bill veto put infrastructure needs front and center for a moment, anyway

From the who'd-have-thunk-it file: The first Congressional override of a President George W. Bush veto was about infrastructure funding. At least partly.

Now, a majority of U.S. senators and congressmen didn't believe the $2.3 billion Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) was worth preserving simply because they wanted to do something about our deteriorating water resources infrastructure. WRDA includes enough pork to feed a not-so-small small army, which is at least partly why the president vetoed it on Nov. 2.

But just because congressmen bless politically important projects for their respective states doesn't mean the projects (or at least some of them) aren't worth funding in the bigger-picture scheme of things, which is why many links in the transport chain were out there pushing hard for Congress to override the Bush veto.

There was the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), which had been pleading with anybody who'd listen that it won't be long before our unwillingness to fund the burgeoning backlog of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers programs — from navigation system and flood-control improvements to wetlands restoration projects to hurricane-related damage repairs — starts doing a number on international trade. ("The legislation is supposed to be biennial, [but] the last WRDA bill was signed into law in 2000," AAPA argued last week.)

Then there was the agriculture lobby the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), National Corn Growers Association and American Farm Bureau, among others — which supported WRDA because it'd authorize funds for inland waterway projects that have been delayed more than a dozen years. NGFA, in particular, cited $3.6 billion worth of construction and renovation of dilapidated locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway. "If the United States fails to modernize its inland waterways system, U.S. agricultural exports will be further undermined as competing foreign countries continue to invest in their own transportation infrastructures," said NGFA President Kendell Keith early last week.

Perhaps the pro-WRDA lobby swayed some of the senators and congressmen. Maybe the pork did. Or maybe the majority of them believed it was time to spend more (as in a lot more) on water resources infrastructure. On Nov. 6, 138 Republicans joined 223 Democrats in the House to vote 361-54 to override the veto. On Nov. 8, the Senate easily cleared the two-thirds majority needed to override with a 79-14 vote.

What's next? Likely, more lobbying. WRDA doesn't provide any funding — it merely authorizes the projects and policy revisions in the bill. Funding appropriations for specific provisions require separate action and further congressional review.

So: How much ultimately will be spent on water resources infrastructure isn't clear. Equally cloudy is just how much this Congress will go to bat for infrastructure development in other contexts and for other modes. The override certainly doesn't suggest anything about the prospects of rail-specific infrastructure programs seeing the light of day on the Hill. But given the inter-modal connectedness that permeates the Rail Renaissance era, one mode's capacity gain is another's ... well, potential capacity gain. As NGFA's Keith put it: "If U.S. transportation capacity cannot be efficiently expanded through improved waterways, increasing congestion on the highway and rail network will hamper overall U.S. economic growth."

I wouldn't call the override a win-win-win ... in part because I'm not sure it is (the devil's in the project/funding details) and in part because I would never ever use that phrase unless I could say it out loud while batting my eyelashes and pausing for (hopefully) humorous effect (it's a phrase that doesn't ... well ... mean anything). But I'll take the veto and the potential for infrastructure development (and congestion relief) on faith. And I know it means a lot to the ag and port folks, so that's a good thing. On to the next infrastructure needs program, then ...

Posted by: Pat Foran | Date posted: 11/12/2007

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Posted by Dave Smith on 11/12/2007 6:25:35 PM

Don't forget though. Waterways, like highways, are open access. North American railroads are not, rather they are the opposite of open access ("closed access" anyone?) It is thus easier to justify throwing public (read: non-user fee) money at infrastructure projects that will benefit multiple users than it is to justify throwing that sane money at projects that benefit a sole recipient. The railroads are fooling themselves if they think they have just as much right to the public trough as those other transportation modes. Giving railroads equal weight for such expenditures would require a major shakeup of the current "closed access" integrated model of operations, and the current crop of railroad management has shown no inclination to evolve in that direction, prefering instead the partially unregulated status of a natural monopoly.

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Posted by Adron on 11/13/2007 11:49:38 AM

I don't see why someone should be forced to open up something THEY built. Don't give me any crap about the stupid land grants... the crap was a loan for all intents and purposes. The railroads have no interest because they fork every practical penny for their infrastructure and then get nickeled and dimed in taxes... so WTF?!?! As for the roadways, most freight carriers on roadways get away with a huge part of the costs defrayed to the taxpayers. So why are they getting a free ride, so why wouldn't the railroads want a cut of that? None of it is fair as long as there is subsidies and federal/government manipulation of transportation.

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Posted by Alan Enderson on 11/13/2007 5:09:41 PM

Public funding of rail infrastructure projects do not “benefit a sole recipient.” Rather, the primary beneficiary of public funding of rail infrastructure projects is the public, through things such as less pollution, lower energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and reduced highway gridlock and highway spending. And, of course, the rail network is available for use by any shipper who wants to use it. The demand for freight transportation will grow sharply in the future. To meet this demand, rail infrastructure investment must grow sharply too. Since 1980, railroads have invested some $400 billion (of private dollars) in this network, and railroads will continue to provide the vast majority of infrastructure funding in the future. However, railroads’ own funding capabilities will not be enough to take full advantage of their full potential to meet the nation’s transportation needs. Public participation would help bridge the funding gap by leveraging private investment. And the public benefits would far exceed the cost of financing. Traffic will move one way or another. From a public policy point of view, it makes good sense to help ensure that as much of this traffic moves by rail as possible.

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Posted by Dave Smith on 11/17/2007 12:35:15 PM

Adron: Why should railroads get something for nothing? If you recieve public funding, you should expect a more tangible public benefit in return than theorectical (and unquantifiable) "benefits," such as supposed cleaner air, etc. Public funding demands public access, pure and simple. PS — How do you justify stating that the land grants were "really just loans"? Did the lands in question all return to the public sector? Alan: If Highway Trust Funds were given directly to a few trucking companies rather than for highway maintenance, you would admit that those few trucking companies were the "sole recipients", even if there is some trickle down benefits to the customers of those few companies or some "public benefit" of cleaner air, etc. That is the blatant hypocrasy of public funding of private rail firms — the money doesn't benefit all rail companies, just the ones who get the funds. How does the $95 million in taxpayer funding for Norfolk Southern's double-stack project benefit CSX? It doesn't, but $95 million for a highway project does benefit all highway users, not just a few.

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Posted by Adron on 11/20/2007 11:06:54 AM

Subsidized funding is a manipulation of the economy, plain and simple. I'm against it. It destroyed our passenger rail, created far too much reliance on the auto and created a largely inflated oil industry. None of these things does us any good in the long run and we're starting to deal directly with more and more of these manipulations day by day. The founding of the country let people organize themselves, they did a far better job than any urban planner, subsidized roadway, or other catastrophy did. Thus, per a stringent and intense study of the history of the United States, I am against subsidies of any type to the various industry sectors. If the highways & trucking competed one to one with the freight railroads everyone would have better pricing control and could build their own infrastructure. In the sense of the freight railroads and trucking, we'd have a very different infrastructure if it wasn't so heavily one-sided toward trucking. To say subsidies are needed, is an outright lie. If that were true, the U.S. would NEVER have existed. Simple cohesive logic would provide that answer.

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