Skip to content

Inland waterway system is vital to our economy

    The U.S. House of Representatives has approved H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform & Development Act that authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop, maintain and support our nation’s waterways and ports while balancing and providing environmental restoration and flood protection.
DougWhitleyPhotoBW    This legislation overwhelming passed 417-3 and with overwhelming support from the members of the Illinois Congressional Delegation in the House. Earlier this year, Sen. Durbin and Sen. Kirk both supported similar legislation in the Senate.
    When Illinoisans think of our transportation infrastructure, they typically think of the interstates that crisscross our state or the railroads moving through the plains. Most Americans know very little about our nation’s inland waterway system and the economic impact of goods traveling from local terminals to national and international destinations.
    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’ 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 more than $222 billion in value across the nation. Some $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 IDOT 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. To put this more into perspective, Illinois Department of Transportation’s long-range state transportation plan reported that Illinois is the origin point for 19 million tons of grain in 2010. Only 289,000 tons of grain was shipped inbound to Illinois. That’s an outbound-to-inbound ration of 65-1 with that orientation only projected to increase. The balance of waterborne cargo is comprised of coal, chemicals and petroleum products that predominantly head eastward up the Ohio River toward Pittsburgh, PA.
    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. The economic benefits of waterways go beyond industrial uses. Thousands of people are employed in recreation or the tourism industries that provide almost $7 billion a year in revenue from millions of people who visit the waterways to boat and fish.
    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. The act provides direction and authorization to the Corps of Engineers to maintain our waterways for navigation and flood prevention. In particular, the Corps maintains our locks and dams, essential components of our nation’s infrastructure. Since the last Water Resources Reform 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 90 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 the Water Resources Reform bill out of committee. This is a bipartisan bill written by Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, a Republican, and Ranking Member Nick Rahall of West Virginia, a Democrat. Earlier this year the Senate passed their version out of committee and it was successfully passed by the Senate. Both bills contain policy reforms that will help our nation better invest in our water infrastructure. These reforms include consolidating and setting hard deadlines for environmental reviews and studies, de-authorizes billions of dollars from inactive projects, prioritizes future investment and allows for public private partnerships for the first time on our waterways.
    However, the cost to upgrade and improve America’s waterways is more than reform alone can provide. Most of America’s locks and dams were built in the 1920s and 1930s and are operating well beyond their designed life. Today, repairs and improvements to this system are made primarily through a user fee of 20 cents per gallon of fuel while operating on the inland waterways for commercial operators (not recreational users). This fee has not been increased since 1995 and is no longer sufficient to maintain, rehabilitate or expand the infrastructure requirements of the inland waterways system.
    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; S. 407, the RIVER Act was introduced in the Senate while the House introduced H.R. 1149 known as WAVE-4. A large portion of the Illinois Congressional Delegation is a cosponsor of WAVE-4 including Rep. Rodney Davis, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Bill Enyart, Rep. Randy Hultgren, Rep. Bill Foster, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Rep. Dan Lipinski, Rep. Bobby Rush, Rep. Aaron Schock and Rep. John Shimkus. We commend these members of the House who support WAVE-4 as a bi-partisan and necessary piece of legislation and continue to encourage other members of Congress, especially those from Illinois to cosponsor those bills.
    Components of WAVE-4 could be incorporated into the Water Resources Reform bill through the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over revenue. However Ways and Means did not mark up the bill, meaning that at least for now no new revenue will be directed toward 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 water resources bill represents progress and provides much needed reform. The differences between the Senate and House versions of this bill are few enough that a conference committee, where members of each house will meet to iron out differences, is likely to occur. The Illinois Chamber supports the water resources 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.
    Doug Whitley is president and chief executive officer of the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce.

Leave a Comment