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Barge Operators to Congress: ‘Raise Our Taxes’

It’s not often that an industry comes to Congress begging to pay higher taxes — but that’s exactly what users of the inland waterways barge system are proposing.

The barge industry’s Waterways Council Inc. and a variety of agriculture, business and labor groups wrote last week to House tax writers urging a 6-cent- to 9-cent-per-gallon increase in the 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax that operators pay to help fund construction of and improvements to the nation’s system of inland locks and dams.

The groups asked House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and ranking member Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., to support an increase in the user fee, which could then be rolled into water resources legislation (HR 3080) the House may take up in October.

The idea isn’t new, but the industry was disappointed that an increase in the user fee wasn’t included in the Senate-passed water bill (S 601). The bill’s sponsors in the House may be concerned that adding a user fee increase to their measure could draw opposition from anti-tax members of their caucus.

The funds raised for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund through the user fee are matched by general appropriations to pay for improvements to the system.

Both the House and Senate bills would free up more of the trust fund to cover new projects by shifting some expensive projects — notably the Olmsted Lock project in Ohio — from the trust fund to the federal government. That project has been sapping most of the trust fund’s money. The House bill would decrease the trust fund’s share of the project cost to 25 percent from the current 50 percent.

In their letter, the shipping groups note that the inland waterway system carries 60 percent of the nation’s export-bound grain and is vital to the nation’s manufacturing and construction industries.

“The user fee increase is supported by those who pay it — just 300 commercial operators — while the entire nation benefits, from hydropower, municipal water supply, recreational boating and fishing, flood control, national security, and waterfront property development,” they wrote.

The group said most of the locks and dams were built in the 1920s and 1930s and need to be upgraded to carry “21st century cargoes that fuel our modern economy.”

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