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Barge Fuel Fee Moves A Step Closer To Lock And Dam Repairs

For years, the aged infrastructure for barge transportation -- including those that carry grain from upriver delivery points to terminals in the port at New Orleans, Louisiana, from where U.S. grain makes its way to the global export market -- has been a looming problem for an industry on which much of the U.S. economy depends.

But, long-sought updates to that infrastructure, namely locks and dams that today make river transportation difficult, took a step toward reaching fruition this week with the passage of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2013 in the House of Representatives.

The ABLE Act that passed the House by a landslide vote of 404-17 pertains primarily to the ability of individuals with disabilities to cover expenses related to education, residence, transportation, health care and employment. Part of that, though, is a proposed 9-cent-per-gallon tax on barge fuel to ultimately fund repairs to the outdated, aching lock and dam system.

The ag industry lauded the passage, saying it's an important step in the right direction for the ag sector.

"The nine-cent increase in the per-gallon barge fuel fee is something that is supported not only by the nation’s soybean farmers, but also by the commercial barge and towing operators who pay it," says American Soybean Association (ASA) president and Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser in an ASA report. "We all support this as a way to dedicate funds to new waterways infrastructure construction and major rehabilitation of the inland waterways system through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. We are pleased that the House passed this provision, and we call on the Senate to quickly do the same.”

The Inland Waterways Trust Fund accounts for half of all improvements, both new construction and revamping existing structures, with the remaining 50% coming from general federal tax revenue, from which about $300 to $400 million is allocated to the trust fund each year based on an existing 20-cent-per-gallon "commercial towing" fuel tax. The Inland Waterways Trust Fund itself takes in about $100 to $120 million each year, a fraction of the cost to repair the locks and dams, some of which are more than 8 decades old.

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