Some boaters use locks regularly and others never do, but even those who avail themselves of the service don’t understand what it costs.
Even the Army Corps of Engineers finds it hard to pinpoint the figure. This difficulty, along with a reticence to implement plans to bolster funding for the Corps, has led to service reductions at 63 locks and dams in mid-America during the last few months, according to HeartLand Boating.
Money to operate and maintain the 236 locks and 12,000 miles of navigation channels for which the Corps is responsible comes from more than one source. The Inland Waterways Trust Fund was created in 1986 to generate funds for major capital expenditures and construction.
It established a 50-50 match between the federal government and commercial users, who paid a 4-cents-a-gallon diesel fuel tax. The rate was increased in 20 cents a gallon in 1994 and it has not changed. The fund had a surplus until 2009, but it has since been declining.
In 2010, legislation was proposed to increase the fuel tax by 6 to 9 cents a gallon, but no action was taken. In the last five years, lock user fees have been proposed twice to Congress. The first time, the idea was to replace the fuel tax; the second attempt was an increase in the tax. The proposals died because of strong opposition from commercial users.
The part of the Corps’ budget that has affected service at locks is the operations and maintenance fund. Congressional appropriations have dropped for years as maintenance and operation costs have been steadily rising. Locks are designed for a 50-year service life and the average age of the locks the Corps maintains is 58.
“These locks are functioning well, but the service maintenance requirement is increasing,” Corps project manager James E. Walker told HeartLand Boating. “[Reductions in service] won’t be popular, but these are the things we have to do nowadays.”