Industry officials apprehensive about cuts in Trump’s ‘skinny’ budget

Towing 1

Maritime leaders are concerned about proposed cuts in President Donald Trump’s initial fiscal 2018 budget, fearing that programs essential to U.S. ports and the inland waterways system will be eliminated or severely cut back.

Trump’s initial proposal — called the “skinny budget” — eliminates the $500 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, a multimodal initiative that funds dock, rail and road improvements at the nation’s ports. Another program, which last year provided $100 million for port security grants, is expected to be cut, and a proposed 31 percent decrease in the Environmental Protection Agency could jeopardize a $100 million program that has helped ports reduce diesel emissions by helping local businesses buy cleaner-burning vessels, trucks and locomotives.

“We’re apprehensive about the fiscal 2018 budget,” said Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA). “Adequate federal investment into U.S. port-related infrastructure, both on the land side and water side, are crucial for the efficient movement of goods so the nation can remain globally competitive.”

Last year, the TIGER program funded $61.8 million in multimodal projects, according to Nagle.

The president’s skinny budget also calls for a $1 billion cut for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in fiscal 2018. Trump’s $5 billion proposal is a 16 percent decrease from the $6 billion agreed upon in the 2017 Continuing Resolution, passed last year by Congress to keep the federal government operating.

That number is deceiving, however. Trump’s initial request is actually higher than every initial budget request by former President Obama going back to the fiscal 2010 budget, according to Debra Calhoun, vice president of the Waterways Council Inc. in Washington, D.C. Obama asked for $5.13 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers in 2010; his lowest request was $4.57 billion in fiscal 2012.

“In terms of the initial budget request, this is a very good number,” Calhoun said.

“We have been through this dance before,” said Susan Monteverde, AAPA’s vice president of government relations. “That is why I am not as negative as other people.” However, Monteverde is quite concerned about the proposal to eliminate the TIGER grants and the expected cuts to port security.

Because the proposed Army Corps budget lacks specifics, the American Waterways Operators cannot make a detailed comment at this point, according to Craig Montesano, vice president of legislative affairs for the AWO. “We are going to work with our champions in the House and Senate to get the funding that is needed for … this important agency,” he said.

A towboat moves coal barges through the Dresden Lock and Dam on the Illinois River near Morris, Ill. President Trump’s initial budget does not include specifics on funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its river facilities, which has concerned some industry officials.

Courtesy South Carolina Ports Authority

The AAPA is asking Congress to fund the general navigation section of the Army Corps budget at $2.9 billion for fiscal 2018, according to Aaron Ellis, spokesman for the AAPA. That figure includes a request of $1.62 billion for coastal navigation, which helps pay for improvements and maintenance of harbors and deep-draft shipping channels.

In addition, the AAPA wants Congress to appropriate $1.33 billon in fiscal 2018 for work that is matched by the Harbor Maintenance Tax, which is expected to generate $1.8 billion in fiscal 2017.

Ellis said the Trump administration has proposed to eliminate TIGER grants because it sees the program as duplicating the FASTLANE (Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies) program, which is mainly focused on highways. However, if TIGER is eliminated, Ellis said changes should be made in other programs.

“We are asking that the current FASTLANE be modified and have broader eligibility for ports who are eligible for TIGER but wouldn’t be eligible for FASTLANE grants,” Ellis said.

The problem with this cut is that TIGER was focused on multimodal projects that benefit ports, which is not the case for the FASTLANE program. 

“The ports need to have more projects that are multimodal and that have the ability to provide service behind the gate (of the port),” Ellis said.

The administration also targeted the TIGER program because Trump sees it as only benefiting ports that receive the money, and the president wants federal spending to focus on regional or national benefits.

“This is true, because ports are locally based, but the goods go through to everywhere” in the country, Monteverde said. “We support the TIGER grants because they are 100 percent multimodal.”

Fiscal year 2018 begins on Oct. 1, so the House and Senate will have until then to debate Trump’s budget and come up with their own proposals if they choose. A fuller budget proposal in May will include tax policy and spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

By Professional Mariner Staff