Senior Senate appropriators have made clear that they won’t go along with the Trump administration’s proposed sharp cuts in the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works budget for fiscal year 2020.

Those signals indicate that appropriators will add funds for a couple of river lock projects that were zeroed out in President Trump’s proposal, an industry official says.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee overseeing Corps civil-works spending, said at an April 10 hearing, “In my opinion, we should spend more, not less, on the nation’s water infrastructure.” [View webcast of subcommittee hearing here.]

Alexander also called the Trump request “a huge step backwards for our nation’s inland waterways” and noted that it omits further funds for a new Chickamauga Lock on the Tennessee River, in his home state. That project has been under construction for several years.

The administration’s 2020 proposal recommends $4.8 billion for Corps civil works, a 31% cut from the $7-billion Congress enacted for 2019. 

Within that total, Trump would slash the civil-works construction account 46%, to $2.2 billion. [See 3/13/2019 ENR story on 2020 Corps budget proposal here.]

The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), also opposes the administration's civil-works budget. Citing the deep proposed cuts in the overall civil-works program and its construction account, Feinstein said to Alexander, “Mr. Chairman, we cannot let that happen.” She added that the requested reduction “doesn’t line up with the administration’s focus on the nation’s infrastructure or the realistic needs of our country.”

Previous Trump administration budget plans and requests from earlier administrations sought reductions in Corps civil works, but Congress generally rejected those attempts.

John Doyle, special counsel with law and lobbying firm Jones Walker LLP,  said in an interview that for presidential budget proposals in general, and particularly for Corps civil works, "It seems increasingly in recent years that the document that represents the administration's budget proposals for that particular fiscal year is nothing more in reality than a political messaging document, which is rejected out of hand by the Congress."

Doyle, a former top Army civil works official, added, "And that's regardless of which administration you're talking about."

Backing for Chickamauga lock

Alexander also was unhappy that the budget request includes no money to continue work on a new, larger Chickamauga lock.

He noted that the project, now under construction, has received funding for five consecutive years and added that “it doesn’t make sense not to include it in the budget request.”

Alexander asked the Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite—who was testifying before the committee—how much funding the Corps could spend on the Chickamauga project in 2020. Semonite said that $92.3 million “would be a good, solid, logical chunk that would get another significant amount of this built.”

Adam Walker, project manager for the Chickamauga lock replacement in the Corps’ Nashville District, told ENR via email that construction was about 34% complete as of the end of March on the estimated $757.7-million project. That estimate uses the October 2017 price level.

Walker added, “The earliest estimated project completion date is December 2024 with efficient annual funding.”

Alexander also asked about amounts the Corps could put to use in fiscal 2020 on other priority navigation projects. Semonite cited a $66-million figure for a new Kentucky Lock, also under construction on the Tennessee River.

The Trump budget does recommend $111 million for the top-rated river navigation project, three locks and dams on the lower Monongahela River in Pennsylvania.

Doyle predicts that Congress will end up adding funds for the Chickamauga and Kentucky locks and include money for the lower Monongahela locks, too.

Fiscal 2020 funding numbers for the Corps and other federal departments and agencies will start to emerge in coming weeks and months as appropriations committees draft their spending bills.

Although the operation and maintenance (O&M) line-item appears to face a 48% reduction, to $1.9 billion, under the Trump budget plan, that comparison is "misleading," says Doyle.

In an emali to ENR, he points out that the administration proposal splits $965 million in Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund money in large part out of the O&M  account and places that amount in a separate account.

Doyle says that a more accurate comparison would be to add the $965 million from the trust fund to the $1.9-billion Trump proposes for Corps O&M. He says, "When you adjust the numbers and do an apples-to-apples comparison, the proposed FY 20 O&M account is not nearly as draconian as appears on the surface, [but is] something on the order of 22.6%—to $2.895 billion, from  FY 19's $3.042 billion appropriations."

That is still  "a significant reduction," Doyle acknowledges, but far less than the 48% cut that initially appears to be the proposal.

Story updated on 4/15/2019 to clarify the size of the Trump budget's proposed percentage cut in the Corps operation and maintenance account.