- - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

When we talk about fixing the crumbling infrastructure in our country, many think about our roads and bridges, which absolutely need our attention and investment. But one of the lesser-known issues with our nation’s infrastructure involves our vast network of rivers and waterways used to transport commodities across the country.

Locks and dams on our inland waterways play an essential role in moving products produced in my district. The 13th Congressional District of Illinois is settled in the west, central part of the state, nestled up against where the Illinois River flows into the mighty Mississippi River.

In the mostly rural area, this location is key to the biggest economic driver of our region — agriculture. The same can be said of many congressional districts across the country.

The United States leads the world in agricultural exports. In 2015, our ag exports totaled $133 billion, with the leading products being grains, feeds and soybeans. Eighty-one percent of those exports are waterborne and 60 percent move by barge along our inland waterways. Locks and dams are used by barges to carry commodities up and down rivers so they can be delivered to market or sent overseas. Unfortunately, many of these locks, including La Grange in Versailles and the Peoria Lock and Dam in Illinois, are almost 100 years old and are literally crumbling — leading to significant delays and increased maintenance costs.

Just one lock closure shuts down the entire system and these closures have increased 700 percent over the last decade. All consumers rely on this system and these challenges hinder the nation’s competitiveness and reduce market opportunities.

Congress recognizes the importance of the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway system, designating it a nationally significant ecosystem and a nationally significant commercial navigation system. The Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP) allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to integrate management of the river’s navigation system and ecosystem. NESP positively impacts multiple states; has the support of industry, labor and environmental interests; and enjoys wide bipartisan support.

In 2007, Congress authorized the construction of seven new 1,200-foot locks along the Upper Mississippi River and the Illinois Waterway System through the NESP. Additionally, they authorized habitat and floodplain restoration, shoreline protection and other conservation projects. But as with most things in Washington, the question becomes how do we pay for it?

A significant portion of the funding for these projects comes from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is funded by fees paid by those who operate on the waterways. In 2014, this industry volunteered a 45 percent increase in the diesel tax they pay into the trust fund. These users want to see greater investment in this infrastructure, and so does Congress.

Unfortunately, the past administration did not prioritize NESP. It has not received the funding for preconstruction engineering and design since 2011. This is the first step in completing these projects. Without appropriate funds, those necessary projects have been suspended.

As President Trump has spoken about the lengthy permitting and regulatory process for road construction projects and the need for reform, the same can be said for our waterway projects. We need to get the bureaucracy out of the way. The Army Corps of Engineers can spend a decade unnecessarily studying projects. More oversight is needed to ensure these projects are getting to construction faster. The longer we delay, the more costly it becomes to complete projects and the more taxpayer dollars are wasted. And as long as we continue to delay, shippers will continue to deal with hours of delays, leading to higher costs for consumers once these products get to market.

We cannot afford to kick the can down the road and let this situation worsen. Funding NESP will result in both immediate and long-term benefits to our communities and the nation that leads the world in agriculture exports. Other nations continue to invest in their waterways and it’s imperative we do the same. Continuing to modernize this system so it works today and so it works for future generations is critical to our nation’s success.

As Congress works together on a bipartisan infrastructure plan in the coming months, it is my hope that not only will we focus on fixing our road and bridges but also America’s waterways.

Rep. Rodney Davis, Illinois Republican, serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the House Agriculture Committee, where he is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research.

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