Capitol Hill cuts may affect port authority's plans

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By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

Local officials continue press for funding

TELL CITY - An effort in Congress to reduce earmarks could affect the Perry County Port Authority's ability to obtain funding for an infrastructure-upgrade project.

"This Congress promised to be more ethical and work on funding; they slashed earmarks in half," Adam Dickey told port-authority board members at a regular meeting Jan. 11. A field representative in Rep. Baron Hill's office, Dickey said that promise means less money is available for needed projects.

Port-authority officials have been working for some time to upgrade railroad track and bridges to accommodate 286,000-pound rail cars.

"Last year we put in a request for the 286 project," Dickey said. "Unfortunately, when transportation funds came out, this project wasn't in there."

Known by those who oppose them as "pork," earmarks are funds identified in congressional bills that circumvent merit-based or competitive allocation processes, according to the Office of Management and Budget, which noted they "curtail the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage funds."

"Some congressmen are not so diligent in their spending," Dickey told the port-board members, citing "bridges to nowhere" as an example. That moniker was applied to two bridges proposed in 2005 to serve sparsely populated areas in Alaska. Bad publicity resulted in the earmarks being dropped. The state received the $459 million they would have provided, but instead of being directed to the bridges, state officials could decide how the money would be spent.

The congressman's aide called the port authority's effort vital.

"You have something related to the essence of keeping this area alive," Dickey told the board.

Board member Alvin Evans asked if the amount requested would make a difference in the success of efforts to obtain funding. He noted a recent list of earmarks seemed to show projects with costs as low as $200,000 and as high as $20 million were favored.

Dickey advised the board to identify a base amount needed for their project, saying, "if you don't get that (amount), is the project unfeasible?" He also suggested the board not request a higher amount only to improve their odds of success, and they might consider breaking the project into parts. "Smaller amounts are easier to deal with," he said.

"It will be tough for us to figure out how to do that," board member Bill Goffinet said. "We don't want to be greedy in what we ask for, but the 286 project is so important we don't want to stretch it out over three or four years."

Dickey said much of the focus for transportation funding is on roadways.

"That can make it hard to get funding for rails," he noted, "but that railroad is a vital link." People seeking and approving grants, he added, want to ensure grants are sufficient to complete the projects for which they're secured.

"Baron does recognize there are not a lot of other options for this project," Dickey said.

"This is about economic growth," board member Tom Holm said. "Two-thirds of Perry County is national forest; we don't have the tax growth a lot of others have."

Dickey said Hill's Washington staff will distribute a questionnaire late this month or in early February to solicit funding needs.

In other business, Evans reported he and Tell City officials canceled a lease under which Tell City Marine would have opened a barge-building operation at the Port of Tell City. The company announced in 2006 hopes to invest up to $18 million in a project that could have employed up to 150 people, but difficulty in obtaining financing quelled the plan.

Another company, operating under the name Tell City Boatworks, is working to move into the area off of Boundary Way in southern Tell City. Dick Neumann, vice president and chief executive officer for the port authority, said well over 100 people had applied to work for that company.

Attorney Chris Goffinet said no bond bids were received by a Jan. 4 deadline, and a new solicitation had gone out to the area's three major banks. Suggesting terms in the original solicitation might have been too restrictive, he said the recent offering has negotiable terms. "It's not a one-shot, take-it-or-leave-it deal," he said. He hoped to have at least one bid by a new, Jan. 14 deadline.

Neumann said Tuesday some responses were being evaluated by the H. J. Umbaugh accounting firm in Indianapolis. The board will meet at 5 p.m. Monday to consider any offerings that survive that review, and will have to get the county commissioners' approval on an amended bonded ordinance reflecting the new terms.

Goffinet hoped to complete the bond sale Jan. 28.

Volumes had remained soft on the river and rail sides, "although we've seen a couple of items where we've turned the corner," Neumann told the board during his executive overview. "We've had a few more rail cars of pig iron, we offloaded one barge and just learned we'll get two of pig iron, and four to six in February." He noted in past meetings traffic through the port tends to dwindle over end-of-year holidays.

The port-rail agency's new marketing director, Stephen George, "hit the deck running," Neumann reported. George was hired in mid-December and began working Jan. 2. Since then, he has met with representatives of the Perry County Development Corp., Indiana 15 Regional Planning Commission, and current and potential customers, he said.

In an annual reorganization, Evans retained the chairman's position, Goffinet remained the vice chairman, Ron Voges kept the secretary-treasurer title and Neumann will continue to serve as assistant secretary-treasurer.