Treading water: Time to fix our aging water highways

An aerial photo shows a split barge to moving through Lock and Dam 15 on the Mississippi River at Davenport and Rock Island. The 600-foot lock, constructed in the 1930s, can only accommodate half a barge tow, requiring additional time for passage.. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
An aerial photo shows a split barge to moving through Lock and Dam 15 on the Mississippi River at Davenport and Rock Island. The 600-foot lock, constructed in the 1930s, can only accommodate half a barge tow, requiring additional time for passage.. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

America’s rivers have waited long enough.

Inland waterways like the Mississippi River are a crucial piece of the nation’s transportation system, but years of neglect and political football have left vital infrastructure outdated and falling apart. That poses a major economic challenge for agricultural exporting states like Iowa.

President Donald Trump now has an opportunity to follow through on the promises other politicians have abandoned. As the administration works out details of its much-anticipated infrastructure investment plan, federal leaders would be wise to provide adequate funding for inland waterway projects.

Even if we don’t realize it, consumers and businesses rely heavily on inland and intercoastal waterways. The so-called water highway system moves an estimated 1 billion tons of cargo annually, valued at $360 billion and supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.

However, most of the 239 locks on inland waterways in the United States have outlived their 50-year life expectancy, according to the 2017 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, leading to unexpected downtime for maintenance.

Additionally, the common 600-foot lock chambers are too small to adequately serve modern 1,200-foot barges. Iowa’s 300 miles of the Mississippi River includes 11 locks and dams, and only one has a modern-size chamber.

As a result, nearly half the barges using the river navigation system face delays, averaging as much as five hours. That drives up shipping costs, which ultimately are passed on to consumers.

States like Iowa carry heavy burdens for our aging locks and dams, as significant portions of the country’s agricultural and energy exports move on barges, including more than half of U.S. grain exports.


U.S. Sen Chuck Grassley has joined the latest effort to secure our country’s water infrastructure. He signed a letter last month to White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, calling for adequate funding for the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program.

“With the expansion of world food and energy needs, the Mississippi River is poised to be more important than ever. The river already moves large volumes of agricultural and energy products between U.S. markets and ports, and serves as the country’s busiest waterway,” Grassley and nine other senators wrote.

Bipartisan agreement is increasingly difficult to find in our hyperpartisan political climate. Yet here we find widespread agreement among policymakers in river states where the economy depends on water freight.

Grassley joined four other Republicans and five Democrats in signing the most recent letter to the White House. Both U.S. Reps. Dave Loebsack and Rod Blum — a Democrat and a Republican with districts bordering the Mississippi River — have lobbied for greater waterway infrastructure funding in the past.

The American economy demands a diverse set of transportation solutions to meet the needs of quickly changing industries, and shipping vessels offer a few important benefits over trains and trucks.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates inland waterways save more than $20 per ton compared to land transportation, which is a significant figure.

The pressing need for modern river infrastructure has been researched extensively by government and industry groups for more than a decade, and numerous politicians have promised river communities like those in Iowa that help is on the way.

More than two years ago, this Editorial Board wrote, “because of unplanned outages and long delays, bulk freight that could most efficiently be shipped by barge is sent by road or rail, putting even more pressure on those transportation systems.”


The problem has only grown worse since then. Federal engineers now estimate our inland waterways need nearly $9 billion in maintenance and updates.

The Trump administration is expected to call for more than $1 trillion in federal, state and private infrastructure spending in a plan released later this winter. Iowa’s federal leaders must ensure our rivers get their fair share.

Infrastructure projects are funded by the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, supported jointly by the federal government and the barge fuel tax. That tax was increased nearly 50 percent in 2015, and the Trump administration previously suggested establishing an additional fee for commercial shippers.

With a tight budget and many competing priorities, it is reasonable and necessary to ask industry players to increase their investments. Combined with adequate federal support, Trump might finally make America’s water highways great again.

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