Barge operator slams plan to hike fees|[02/07/07]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 7, 2007

New efforts by the Bush administration to impose a new user fee on commercial barges to help pay for the cost of maintaining the nation’s river channels amount to &#8220piling on,” one local operator said.

A spokesman for the Vicksburg based Golding Barge Co. Inc., said the company joins other barge operators in saying they already pay taxes to keep the Mississippi River and other waterways navigable.

&#8220We are already taxed very heavily,” said Randy Martin-Nez, vice president of Golding Barge, &#8220and we don’t think our fees are being used appropriately.”

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Martin-Nez said the water commerce is already facing added expenses.

&#8220Ever since Katrina rates have shot through the roof,” he said.

Some of those increases from some companies, such as those located in South Louisiana, are justified, but increases coming from companies in other locations may not be.

The proposal, included in President Bush’s $2.9 trillion budget proposal, does not specify how fees would be assessed.

&#8220We’d like to explore user fee concepts, but we don’t have a proposal that we’re putting out yet,” said John Paul Woodley, the assistant Army secretary who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers. &#8220We want to hear what the industry people and the shippers have in mind.”

The issue of user fees is an old one for firms engaged in river commerce. It usually pits the trucking industry against the barge industry with trucking firms asserting they are overtaxed for road maintenance and waterway firms are undertaxed for channel maintenance.

Barge operators now pay a tax of 20 cents per gallon on diesel fuel, with the money going into a waterway trust fund. Half the cost of replacing and repairing the nation’s massive system of locks and dams comes from that trust fund, while the other half comes from general federal revenue.

The problem, Woodley said, is that the trust fund has steadily decreased over the past decade as barge tow boats have become more fuel efficient. The fund had $250 million as of October.

At the same time, spending to repair aging locks from the 1930s on the Ohio, the Mississippi and other rivers has increased dramatically.

&#8220At that rate, you are very quickly going to exhaust the trust fund,” Woodley said. &#8220The question becomes, ‘What are you going to do?”’

One option, Woodley said, is to tie new fees to how often barges go through existing locks. Any increase in barge traffic would mean more money in the trust fund.

The barge industry, facing rising costs of its own, is gearing up for a fight.

&#8220Operators have already paid roughly $1 billion in fuel taxes over the past 10 years for this purpose,” said Anne Burns, a vice president at American Waterways Operators, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

Postponing new construction projects until the trust fund gains more money is not an option, Woodley said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.