VOL. 128 | NO. 96 | Thursday, May 16, 2013
River Infrastructure Fee Tough Sell in DC
By Bill Dries
U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher told a group of business owners and others who work on the Mississippi River that the political environment in Washington is changing.
Fincher is a member of the Congressional Mississippi River Caucus that is pushing for continuing funding for infrastructure along the river.
The Frog Jump, Tenn., Republican met with the group of 40 Tuesday, May 14, onboard the Memphis Queen showboat at Beale Street Landing.
“Certainty and stability is the answer,” Fincher said. “These guys knowing year after year what they can count on and what they cannot count on is key for them growing their business. The private sector – in spite of the government – does well if we will just let them know what’s happening with the tax code, with the river, with dredging. Funding is the problem. Our funding is so short, but we are spending so much money on entitlements.”
Rob Rash of the Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association, at one point, told Fincher, “We live on earmarks.”
“You did,” Fincher corrected him, noting the House ban on the appropriations attached to bills.
Barge company owners Fincher has talked with are willing to pay fees for the infrastructure work. But he said the problem is passing the law establishing those fees even if they are supported by the industry that will be paying them.
“The problem is the political environment is so polarizing that the first minute I say or someone suggests that they are for raising the gas tax – the most Republican district in the state of Tennessee now is my district,” Fincher said. “My tea party guys, most of them, they are good folks. But after last year when I voted to raise the debt limit, guess what? They are no big fans of Stephen Fincher anymore. I’m out of the tea party, guys, because I’m not conservative enough.”
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat passes underneath the Frisco and Harahan bridges, heading northbound on the Mississippi River.
(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)
Fincher, a farmer from rural West Tennessee, won the 8th District seat in 2010, emerging from a crowded GOP primary that year in which he drew fire from some elements of the tea party even then. Fincher continues to talk about controlling spending on federal entitlement programs – notably Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
“We’ve got to be reasonable about how we approach these things,” Fincher said Tuesday. “Me voting no on everything is not the answer. We’ve got to come up with a funding solution that’s going to work. But raising the gas tax in this environment is just a hard sell. I’m open.”
Jamey Sanders, vice president of Choctaw Transportation Co., a fourth-generation heavy marine construction and transportation company in Dyersburg, Tenn., said river infrastructure suffers from a “squeaky wheel gets the grease mentality” in Washington when it comes to funding.
“We had a flood of record in 2011 on the Mississippi River. The only reason it wasn’t the biggest disaster in the history of the United States was because of the work that the industry and the (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers) and we have all done over the last 75 years,” Sanders said. “It went completely unappreciated. … The disaster gets funded.”
“It’s not sexy to dredge a port,” Rash added.
It’s also a hard sell to convince citizens and their congressional representatives who aren’t on the river that the flow of commerce on it still affects them.
With the Republican majority in the House has come a changing of the guard in key states where Blue Dog conservative Democrats with rural backgrounds have been replaced by urban Republicans, said Fincher.
“People don’t realize how much water and how much ground mass and land comes down this river,” Fincher said of the sediment the constantly changing river carries along with constantly moving streams of commerce. “People say, ‘It’s not my problem.’ If you look at the map it’s a lot of people’s problem. And we’re moving a lot of freight for a lot of folks.”
Fincher floated an idea about a plan to dredge the 10 ports in the Memphis district every two years. Some in the audience said it depends on how high the river is. Others said with 50 to 60 businesses in Memphis who use the river, spreading out the cost of regular dredging isn’t as much of a challenge as it is in river towns where there may be one or two businesses dependent on the river.
Still another business owner complained that when he and others talk to their congressmen and then compare notes they find the representatives are “all working on something different.”