Hundreds of locks and dams along the U.S. inland waterways system have exceeded their lifespans, which causes delays, greater costs and reduced transportation efficiency. Legislators and agricultural groups are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize funding for construction of the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program on the Upper Mississippi River System, which would be funded through $2.5 billion designated for inland waterways in the recently approved Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Bobby Frederick, vice president of legislative affairs and public policy at the National Grain and Feed Association, explains the bipartisan infrastructure bill recently signed into law provides a vision for quickly enhancing inland waterways with a 60-day shot clock that ends on Jan. 14 seeking recommendations for the Army Corps on where to start.
The IIJA prudently includes a $2.5 billion investment for construction of inland waterways projects and specifies that prioritization must be placed on projects included in the 2020 Inland and Intracoastal Waterways Capital Investment Strategy. The CIS prioritizes thirteen new start construction projects, the majority of which are the new 1,200-foot NESP locks. This includes Lock 25 (Tier A), LaGrange Lock (Tier A), and Lock 24 (Tier B) on the Upper Mississippi River System. These projects have been vetted through collaboration between the Corps and the Inland Waterways Users Board.
Originally authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, NESP would modernize and expand seven outdated locks at the most congested lock locations along the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers as well as fund more than $1 billion in ecosystem restoration. NESP will create almost 50 million person-hours of living wage construction jobs. A 2019 study released by USDA showed that rebuilding NESP locks would inject $72 billion additional dollars into the nation’s GDP.
In the letter from lawmakers, they point to the broader benefits the NESP upgrades would generate. “The regional and national economic benefits of NESP are significant, which is why the project was included in the December 2020 Inland and Intracoastal Waterways Twenty-Year Capital Investment Strategy developed by the Corps and the Inland Waterways User Board,” the letter states. “Following the 2020 CIS including NESP construction will bring immediate financial and environmental benefits throughout the system that will reverberate through the economy.”
In a letter from the Agricultural Transportation Working Group, the groups explain the existing locks on the UMRS were built in the 1930’s with 600-foot chambers to accommodate the standard vessels used for commerce during that time. However, today’s towboats can push a 1,200-foot-long tow of 15 barges which must “double-lock” through, resulting in significant, costly delays.
“These delays adversely impact the agricultural value chain as the UMRS is a vital artery for transporting numerous commodities including corn, soybeans, and fertilizer,” they ag groups write.
Both letters point to strong support in favor of the construction among ag industries and referenced the $1 million that the Soy Transportation Coalition and soy state affiliates raised for the Lock & Dam 25 project. The American Soybean Association, along with STC, the Waterways Council, National Grain and Feed Association, and others, worked to garner signatures for the Congressional letter and led efforts to develop the coalition letter urging swift action to get NESP started.
The navigation industry voluntarily sought and achieved a 45% increase in their commercial diesel user fee several years ago in part to help advance NESP construction.
NESP addresses the needs of both navigation infrastructure improvements and ecosystem restoration into an integrated, multi-purpose program. NESP’s ecosystem restoration would benefit riverine and riparian habitats throughout the Upper Mississippi River System. Specifically, NESP will modify dam operations to restore natural river level variability, backwater and island habitat, and side-channel reconnections, among other projects. Collectively, these restoration activities will help ensure that birds, fish, and other wildlife continue to thrive in their natural habitats in and along the UMRS.
Upgrading the aging inland waterways systems is critical to increasing barge capacity for shipping larger loads of U.S. soybeans and other grains to international customers.
“Achieving these new 1,200-foot locks as part of NESP is all the more important considering that a 15-barge tow transports the same amount of dry cargo as 216 rail cars and 1,050 trucks, and the comparison is even greater for liquid cargo. Modernizing these outdated locks will help discipline rail rates, reduce wear and tear on U.S. roads and bridges and make American agriculture more competitive,” the ag groups write.
Work remains to ensure funding is specifically allocated to a number of the lock and dam projects – specifically Lock and Dam #25, LaGrange Lock and Dam, and Lock and Dam #24 – that have lingered for years waiting for needed investment, explains Mike Steenhoek, STC executive director.
“The bipartisan group of senators and House members clearly understand that it is time to finally move these projects forward,” he adds. “This is arguably the most opportune time for many years to make significant improvements to this system. We hope our national leaders truly embrace this opportunity.”
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