Pushing back against criticisms that’s it’s a “kickback” for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, business leaders in Western Kentucky are defending efforts to pay for the Olmsted Dam and Lock in the bill ending the government shutdown.
The language in the McConnell-Reid deal increased the funding cap on the project from $775 million to $2.9 billion, which conservative critics blasted as a so-called “Kentucky Kickback” earmark.
But those looking out for the region’s economic interests say upgrading Olmsted and other U.S. dams is just as important as maintaining America’s roads and bridges.
“If you want to see our economy shut down then shut down the inland waterway system in this country,” says Greg Wathen president and CEO of the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana in Evansville. “And it will make this default really appear minor because it will have such far-reaching implications for our country.”
“It will immediately shut down the economy because you won’t be able to move products.”
Among the concerns, for instance, are two of the locks that are deteriorating structurally and have no steel reinforcements. Others are well past their 15-year shelf life as the dam is expected see a 50 percent increase in river traffic over the next two decades.
The dam sits at the border of Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri where about 90 billion tons of materials pass through each year. Among the needed improvements the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are seeking is opening new locks to accommodate larger shipping vehicles, replacement of century-old technologies and a 2,600-foot-long dam.
Olmsted was among several add-on provisions in the deal to re-open the federal government. Local business advocates are upset that their communities are being hit in the political crossfire.
“It’s always disappointing when people don’t understand the needs of the local community and, unfortunately for better or worse, this seems to be the way Washington often works,” says Henderson County Chamber of Commerce President Brad Snyder.
“There are dozens and hundreds of examples of these types of projects tucked into language in bills. I for one am glad somebody is looking out for Western Kentucky. We often have to beg and scream and plead for the needs in our end of the state. I’m glad someone is listening quite frankly.”
But McConnell’s Kentucky counterpart in the Senate, Republican Rand Paul, voted against the overall deal and has been on record as voicing skepticism about the project’s cost and construction.
In a letter to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lieutenant last year, Paul expressed doubts about Olmsted given “the fact that the Corps continues to construct the dam ‘in the wet’ when this construction method has clearly proven unsuccessful.”
Paul is declining to publicly respond to questions about the provision specifically, but when asked if the senator agreed with the language on raising the cap to $2.9 billion, a spokesman says Kentucky’s junior senator continues to have concerns.
“It’s fair to say he had concerns about increasing the funding level and he outlined that to the corps,” says Paul spokesman Dan Bayens. “It’s a project that needs to be finished, and Sen. Paul has big concerns about the construction method and how the corps was going about the project.”
It is unclear when or if Paul was made aware of the language regarding the Kentucky dam by either Sens. Diane Feinstein of California or Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, whom McConnell’s office says are responsible for crafting the provision.
Business leaders representing Western Kentucky, where Paul is from, understand his concerns with Olmsted’s delays and rising cost.
But, overall, they tell the radio station the Tea Party’s austerity movement is Washington isn’t serving rural parts of the state well.
“They make the assumption this is happening in a vacuum. We have been pushing for this improvement for years,” Wathen says. “And I also think they need to open up their eyes and look at we have crumbling infrastructure in this country that needs to be funded. And if you want to put people back to work, one of the things you can do is make sure our infrastructure is in place.
“Because countries around the world that are burgeoning, they are putting money in infrastructure.”