US shipping sector sinking

Cargo ship docked at US port.
Cargo ship docked at US port.

WASHINGTON — As Congress imposes deep spending cuts on everything from national defence to child care, shipping industry executives are urging lawmakers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on a river network that accounts for a declining share of the nation’s domestic freight.

During a lobbying blitz in the past month, roughly 130 tugboat and barge operators fanned across Capitol Hill, meeting with lawmakers and congressional staffers.

The shipping executives argued that the US government should spend $150 million more each year to upgrade the Depression-era locks and dams that enable them to ship soybeans, coal and other commodities down the nation’s major rivers. In return, the shippers said, they would pay more in fuel taxes.

For an industry that already is subsidised heavily by the US government – and whose growth in moving domestic freight is being outpaced by rail and interstate trucking – pushing such an argument at a time of budget cutbacks is navigating upstream.

But barge operators have cultivated a bipartisan group of river-state lawmakers, including Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who appear ready to fight for the industry’s interests when the Senate takes up the issue this week.

The “Battle of the Barges” may not command the public’s attention the way that the debates over gun control and immigration have. But the outcome could signal whether the traditional way of doing business on Capitol Hill – coalition-building, campaign donations and face-to-face lobbying – can still get results in an era when partisan conflicts have made it hard to advance legislation of nearly all types. (Reuters)

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