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President Obama’s American Jobs Act contains a number of mechanisms for funding waterways projects.

The mainstream media, when talking about transportation, routinely leaves waterways off the list, so it behooves us to dig deeper and find the information in the bill that addresses our industry.

The bill includes inland waterways and commercial ports as two of the eight categories defining a transportation infrastructure project. (The others are highway or road, bridge, mass transit, airports, air traffic control systems, and passenger rail.)

The Act includes $10 billion in funding for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). Passed in 1998, TIFIA provides federal credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit to finance surface transportation projects of national and regional significance – which includes port and waterway projects.

Under Immediate Transportation Infrastructure Investments, the bill includes Transportation Infrastructure Grants and Financing – $5 billion available to the Secretary of Transportation for capital investments in the surface transportation infrastructure, including “port infrastructure investments, including projects that connect ports to other modes of transportation and improve the efficiency of freight movement.”

A $5 billion item would expand US-DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program and FHWA’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) credit assistance program to help leverage federal resources.

Our sister publication, The Waterways Journal, reported in October 2010 that the Port of Cates Landing, a slack water port in northwestern Tennessee, received a $13 million TIGER II federal grant to complete its Mississippi River port project. An economic study by the Business and Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University found that the port would bring hundreds of jobs to the area. Multiplied by the many port and waterways projects (in addition to projects in the other facets of the infrastructure definition) struggling to find capital investment dollars, these job numbers reveal a clear step toward alleviating the employment situation in the United States.

The Act stipulates “The secretary shall distribute funds provided under this subsection as discretionary grants to be awarded to State and local governments or transit agencies on a competitive basis for projects that will have a significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area, or a region, ….port infrastructure investments, including projects that connect ports to other modes of transportation and improve the efficiency of freight movement.”

The bill would establish the American Infrastructure Financing Authority (AIFA) as a wholly-owned government corporation to provide “direct loans and loan guarantees to facilitate investment in economically-viable infrastructure projects of regional or national significance.” In this section, the bill reiterates its definition of infrastructure project, listing the elements of the transportation, water, and energy sectors.

This bill is a good plan as both a plan for creating jobs and a plan to fix the country’s failing and dangerous infrastructure. The AIFA’s structure and operations are spelled out in detail, and include provisions for a special inspector general to keep the directors honest. As the nation grows and diversifies, consolidating infrastructure spending in a central, transparent agency makes good business sense, and addresses the general public’s disenchantment with the existing appropriations process.

Judith Powers

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