As preliminary work continues in Congress on a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), an Army Corps of Engineers-waterways industry team has weighed in with a substantive plan to boost spending and accelerate the pace of infrastructure construction.

WRDAs authorize funds for Corps civil works projects, such as river locks, harbor dredging and ecosystem restoration. The legislation is as important to companies that design and  build those water projects as SAFETEA-LU is to firms that do highway and transit work.

The new waterways proposal calls for a $7.6-billion capital program over 20 years and recommends a sizable increase in the diesel-fuel tax to cover some of the cost.

The proposal's recommendations on April 13 won approval from the Inland Waterways Users Board, a federal advisory group established by Congress.

The plan also has the backing of Waterways Council Inc., the American Waterways Operators and the National Waterways Conference and endorsements from more than 150 companies and organizations.

Stephen Little, president of Crounse Corp., a Paducah, Ky.-based barge company and the chairman of the users board, outlined the plan for the House water resources and transportation subcommittee at an April 15 hearing.

The proposal envisions average annual spending of $380 million, up from about $170 million now. Of the $380 million, new construction would get $320 million and $60 million would go for major upgrades.

The plan would be financed through $110 million from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is financed by fuel taxes on barges, and $270 million from general federal revenue.

What adds force to the proposal is that the waterways organizations that back the plan have agreed to support increasing the current 20-cent-per-gallon diesel-fuel tax by 6 to 9 cents per gal.

Other elements of the proposal include using the new-construction funds to finish a list of priority projects and a series of recommendations for improving Corps project delivery

Getting a new WRDA enacted this year seems to be a long shot, however. There have been hearings, but little real action, so far in Congress. Moreover, the 2010 congressional session will be abbreviated, because of the November elections. That will leave little time on the agenda for all but the most-critical bills.