(Posted Wed. Aug 22nd, 2012)

Aug. 22: The National Corn Growers Association last week attended a series of meetings that underscored the need for significant changes to lock funding. The meetings looked at infrastructure repairs, transportation situations and ecosystem projects on the Upper Mississippi River. These events, which brought a broad array of stakeholders together to explore the future of this inland waterways system, were held just as drought conditions forced the closure of an 11-mile stretch of the river, highlighting the impact of disruptions to this important transportation channel.


The first meeting, hosted by the Army Corps of Engineers, examined navigation and ecosystem issues on the waterways and detailed the Corp’s long-range goals and priorities for repairs and improvements to the infrastructure along the river.  Attendees, including representatives from environmental groups, the grain trade, organized labor and shipping interests, looked at the various river projects while touring sites on the river and the lock facilities located near Alton, Ill.


In these presentations, the Corps stressed that, at this time, funding will only allow them to deal with the long backlog of repairs, operations and maintenance necessary to keep current infrastructure operational. Noting that approximately 94 percent of the locks located on the river are more than 50 years old, the Corps expressed understanding for concerned parties but explained that, given two consecutive years in which Congress has failed to fund NESP, funding for repairs must currently be handled on a triage basis, with the Corps determining the order of prioritization.


With a $1.15 billion backlog for the Corps St. Louis District’s operations and maintenance, it does not anticipate lock modernization projects within its district until 2032. Given this start date, projects that would increase the inland waterways system’s ability to accommodate the country’s evolving shipping needs would not be fully operational until 2047. Corps studies determined that the current infrastructure will only remain adequate for anticipated increases of commercial use until 2020 based upon the U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization: Preparing for Post-Panamax Vessels report released last June.


The Mississippi River Commission hosted the second day of meetings, which centered around a public hearing on river projects, issues and evolving situations particular to the specific region. This forum, part of a series hosted in a variety of locations along the river, allowed area residents and business owners to directly address the Commission.


During the forum, NCGA Production and Stewardship Action Team Member Dan Cole, who farms in Plainville, Ill., presented on the “Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency, and Environment Act,” also known as WAVE4. Cole explained how, as those involved in shipping along the Mississippi have volunteered to increase the fuel levy by an additional six to nine cents per each gallon of diesel purchased , this legislation could provide the additional funding necessary to infuse much needed capital into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. In doing so, it would provide the much-needed repairs and improvements to infrastructure used in transportation without adding to the tax burden of regular citizens.   Further, WAVE4 recommends significant changes to the prioritization, planning and execution of construction projects, to ensure the cost overruns and delays in construction completion are addressed.  At this time, WAVE4 has 24 sponsors in the U.S.  House of Representatives and efforts continue to identify sponsors of a similar bill in the Senate.


“WAVE4 offers an effective solution to the funding problems plaguing our inland waterways system,” said Cole. “Shippers realize how important these public projects are to their own businesses and to our national economy. In choosing to voluntarily increase the fuel assessment placed on themselves and providing a considerable portion of the necessary funding, they offer the win-win type of solution necessary given the current national debt situation. These improvements would help farmers get grain to markets more effectively, improve the efficiency of our export system and help the shippers themselves avoid imminent and costly delays and ever-present worries over the future of the rivers upon which they depend.”


Accompanied by NCGA Director of Production, Stewardship and Livestock Max Starbuck, Cole listened as several commodity organizations, shippers and other interest organizations mirrored support for WAVE4 to the MRC. Following the meeting, NCGA supplied Commission officials with further information on WAVE4 at their request.


To learn more about NCGA positions on transportation issues, click here.