Dam Project in Budget Deal Long Delayed, Way Over Budget

The bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling had one provision that has brought conservatives’ ire upon Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: a funding authorization for over $2 billion for a locks and dams project on the Ohio River.

Conservatives attacked McConnell over the proviso, alleging that he had earmarked it, but his role isn’t exactly clear: President Obama requested the authorization in his 2014 budget, and Senator Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), ranking member on the relevant subcommitee, told BuzzFeed that he and subcommitee chairman Dianne Feinstein specifically requested the authorization in this bill so that $160 million in contracts wouldn’t have to be cancelled.

But the project, known as Olmsted Locks and Dam, certainly has funneled a lot of money and jobs to McConnell’s home state and region. Congress authorized $775 million for the project in 1988, during McConnell’s first term in the Senate, but money didn’t begin flowing to the project until 1991. Over the last 22 years, the project, intended to replace 1920s-era infrastructure, has suffered a series of delays and cost overruns, and the Army Corps now estimates that the project will cost $3.1 billion. The dam won’t be done until 2020, at last estimate, and the entire project will be finished in 2024.

The project has drained around three-quarters of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, an account funded by general tax revenue and a tax on inland shipping companies, which is supposed to fund waterways construction. That means other projects have suffered delays or been put off: Three lock and dam projects on the Mississippi now have projected finishing dates in 2064, 2070, and 2090, respectively.

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