(Posted Wed. Feb 22nd, 2012)

By Rick Tolman, NCGA Chief Executive Officer


Feb. 22:  Along with others from farm country, I recently returned from a visit to Panama, where we were treated to a tour of the Panama Canal and got to see very closely the third canal and series of locks being constructed to expand capacity.  


The existing canal is breathtaking with its scale and scope and what it accomplishes, particularly when one thinks of the timeframe of its construction and the technology available at that time.  The new construction and the pace and scale and scope are even more amazing and truly beyond words.  What Panama is doing will clearly position them for the 21st Century and cement their position of being a world trade hub – to the benefit of their populace and economy.


The project will create a new set of locks and a canal alongside the existing canal.  The new channel is designed to handle “Post Panamax” ships and will essentially triple the cargo capacity of the canal. It includes construction of two lock complexes—one on the Atlantic side and another on the Pacific side—each with three chambers, which include three water-saving basins; excavation of new access channels to the new locks and the widening and deepening of existing navigational channels.  It is a project of tremendous scale and undertaking. 


But, what is most impressive is that construction started in 2007 and is on track for completion in 2014.  Projected total cost for this massive project is between $5 billion and $6 billion, and by all reports the project is on time and on budget.


Contrast that to our own internal lock-and-dam system that continues to deteriorate with little prospect for definitive action by Congress or the Corp of Engineers.  As one example of the failure of our system, consider a new report just out on the Olmstead Lock and Dam on the Ohio River.


  • Congress authorized the Olmstead project in 1993.  The Engineers report estimated a total cost of $775 million and a seven-year construction duration. Ground was broken in 1996.
  • By 2003, the Olmstead project’s cost had risen to $1.06 billion and its “optimum” completion date, based on efficient funding, was projected to be in 2010.  The seven-year timetable has doubled to 14.
  • The Corp of Engineers has recently recast the cost and completion date. Cost is now estimated at $2.9 billion, with a completion date of 2021, or 25 years.
  • At this point in time, it is projected that no significant new construction projects anywhere on the U.S. Inland Waterway System will be able to move forward for at least 10 years because of the cost overruns at Olmstead that consume virtually all of the revenues in the Inland Waterway Trust Fund.

So, while Panama is quickly and efficiently tripling the cargo capacity of the Panama Canal and other countries around the world like Brazil are increasing their port draft and inland waterway systems to take advantage of the new capacity, the U.S. system will move backwards for  at least the next decade because of the inefficiency and ineptness of our system for construction and repair.


What this means is that when the new capacity of the Panama Canal comes online, the U.S. inland waterway system, which is already surviving on Band-Aids and duct tape, will be less efficient and less effective than it is today.


I realize that, to some, comparing the Panama Canal with the U.S. Inland Waterway System will be considered apples to oranges.  Perhaps this is the case. But taking seven years to complete the canal on budget and on time, compared to more than 20 years and being over budget by a factor of four (and climbing) is a lot more than fruit salad. 


Our current system of approving, funding, constructing and repairing our Inland Waterway System is not just broken – it’s a national embarrassment. It is time for Congress to acknowledge that and do what needs to be done to get our system fixed.  We dug the original Panama Canal.  Heaven knows that if we were playing by the same system then as we are now, we would still be digging. 


Even worse, we are rapidly losing competitive advantage. What will it take? It will take vision to see and understand the need and the opportunity. It will take leadership to open doors. And it will take gumption to move forward. It will take, as did Panama more than a century ago, someone like Theodore Roosevelt to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy and say “Get it done!”