Inland waterways is vital to our economy

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Inland waterways is vital to our economy

By Douglas L. Whitley

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA), that authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to develop, maintain, and support our Nation’s waterways and ports while balancing and providing environmental restoration and flood protection.

America’s inland waterways work like our highways and railroads, connecting the Midwest and other internal regions of the U.S. to the rest of the world. Each of these systems is vital for the import and export of commodities, raw materials, and finished products.

Illinois’s portion of these navigable waterways is roughly 1,118 miles, only a portion of the 25,000 miles of rivers and canals that move more than 612 million tons of cargo totaling over $222 billion in value across the nation. $23 billion of that $222 billion annually travels the Illinois portion of the waterways.

This portion is comprised of the Mississippi River, Illinois River, Ohio River, and tributaries of these larger systems. The result is a connection between the Great Lakes, Port of New Orleans, and the western side of the Appalachian Mountains.

The 2010 Illinois Department of Transportation Freight Mobility Report showed 104 million tons of the goods being moved on Illinois waterways are outbound from Illinois compared to 127 million inbound tons.  Nearly one-third is Illinois grain destined for export via New Orleans.  The bulk movement of grain for export is crucial to Illinois’ agricultural economy.

Industries including agriculture, mining and manufacturing move products by bulk efficiently by barge providing thousands of direct jobs in these industries. According to data gathered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, waterways in Illinois support almost 50,000 jobs and move almost $140 billion in goods and commodities through Illinois and account for $6.4 billion in revenue. These numbers do not include jobs and investment that connect to the waterways including railroads, trucking and logistics facilities, and other industries. Investment in one area of our transportation network creates growth in other areas and is an investment American taxpayers need to make. However, our ability to efficiently move cargo by waterways is threatened.

Historically, the U.S. Congress authorizes a water resources development act every two years. WRRDA provides direction and authorization USACE to maintain our waterways for navigation and flood prevention. In particular, the USACE maintains our locks and dams, essential components of our nation’s infrastructure. Since the last WRDA bill was authorized in 2007, the world has kept on turning and our nation’s locks and dams continued to age. Some of these facilities were constructed in the 1930s and many are operating well beyond their ideal lifespan.

The result is a backlog of projects that costs $8 billion and is growing quickly as deterioration exceeds the rate of repair and new construction. Broken locks delayed the movement of goods and caused unscheduled delays in percent of the locks in 2009. In 2011, delays as a result of malfunctioning locks cost industry $33 billion. It is estimated that amount will rise to $50 billion by 2020 if there is little or no change in the pace of repair and construction.

In September, the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives reported WRRDA out of committee as a bipartisan bill. Earlier this year the Senate passed its version of the bill that will help our nation better invest in our water infrastructure.

However, the cost to upgrade and improve America’s waterways is more than reform alone can provide.

Improvements in our inland waterways will increase our ability to move agricultural goods, heavy machinery, and other bulk items more efficiently. Earlier this year, two bills were introduced that if approved by Congress and signed into law would increase the waterway user fees to pay for improvements. The RIVER Act (S. 407) was introduced in the Senate while the House introduced H.R. 1149 known as WAVE-4.

Components of WAVE-4 could be incorporated into WRRDA through the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over revenue. However Ways and Means did not mark-up WRRDA, meaning that at least for now no new revenue will be directed towards construction on the waterways. Despite industry support, a majority of GOP members in the U.S. House of Representatives do not want to raise user fees.

Their commitment to fiscal restraint is commendable in the “big picture” but the failure to accept responsibility for addressing the backlog of projects critical to the nation’s economy is extremely short-sighted. The backlog of work for the USACE is simply too large to be paid for at the proposed levels.

While the lack of an increase in investment is disappointing, the WRRD bill represents progress and provides much needed reform. The Illinois Chamber supports the WRRDA bill and is a proponent of the RIVER Act and WAVE-4 in hopes that further progress to improve the nation’s waterways can be achieved.

Douglas L. Whitley


Douglas L. Whitley is president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

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