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CEDAR RAPIDS — With bipartisan support for a proposed $1.2 trillion investment in America’s aging infrastructure, members of Iowa’s congressional delegation are optimistic upgrades to the Mississippi River locks and dams that farmers rely on to move grain to export markets will be included in the package.
“This is a huge win” for Iowa, the Midwest and the entire country, Republican 1st District U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson said about a $22.5 million funding request she and Illinois Democratic U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos got included in the House Appropriations Committee funding bill for Energy and Water Development.
Although Lock and Dam 25 is not in Iowa — it’s between Missouri and Illinois north of St. Louis — corn growers consider it critical to the agriculture export economy “and is an economic engine for the entire region,” Hinson said.
In addition to facilitating the movement of about 630 million tons of cargo a year valued at $232 billion, the inland waterway system supports more than a half million jobs, according to Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is “encouraged” by discussion to include system upgrades either in the bipartisan infrastructure framework or Congress’ annual appropriation package. He’s requested the funding from both the Senate Environment and Public Works and Appropriations Committees
Many of the locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River System are “well beyond their 50-year design life and cannot accommodate modern tows,” Grassley said in a recent floor speech. Case in point: Lock and Dam 25, built in 1939, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
Benton County corn and cattle farmer Lance Lillibridge, who sits on the Iowa Corn Growers Association board of directors, would like to share in the optimism but he’s heard it before.
“I'd love to tell you that I'm encouraged,” he said. “But we've been listening to this song-and-dance for how many years? It’s been blah, blah, blah. Show me the money.”
The value of the river transportation system is not widely understood, Lillibridge said.
“It is unreal the amount of commerce I’m seeing right now,” he said Thursday morning in a phone interview from the Port of New Orleans, where he was watching shipments moving up and down the Mississippi. “In just the last 15 minutes, I’ve seen 10 million bushels of corn going out of the country to China, Honduras, Japan.”
He’s right to be concerned about the aging lock and dam infrastructure, Hinson said. According to a study prepared for the National Waterways Foundation and the U.S. Maritime Administration, estimated costs of an unplanned closure of Lock 25 alone would result in a $1.57 billion loss to the economy, impacting 132 counties in 17 states.
Modernizing the lock and dams “is absolutely a crucial issue for our river economies,” Hinson said Friday. “This is about safety. This is about expediency, efficiency and making sure that we have viable ways to get our products to market … specifically for Iowa's farmers and ag producers.”
For Iowa farmers, the loss of river shipping would be devastating, Lillibridge said. He estimates at least 30 percent of Iowa-grown corn is exported. If the lock and dam system shuts down and 30 percent of his market goes away, “I’ve got a huge problem,” he said.
“If all of a sudden I’m sitting on 30 percent of my corn and have no place to go with it, we'll see prices crash, profitability will be zero, you will see a farm crisis like you've never seen before,” Lillibridge warned.
With nearly two-thirds of the nation’s grain exports traveling on the Upper Mississippi River System, “we cannot afford to let this situation worsen,” Hinson said.
She and Grassley think upgrading the system fits nicely into the infrastructure plan, especially in terms of job creation. Modernizing the system would provide roughly 10,000 construction jobs over the lifetime of the program, which is about 20 years of construction, Hinson said.
Corn and soybean shipments account for more than half of the goods moved by weight, according to a study for the Iowa Department of Transportation. However, Iowa businesses also ship coal, fertilizer, industrial and road salt, biodiesel, lumber, rebar, steel, precast concrete, sand, molasses and gasoline.
According to that study, more than 66,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs created by new worker spending are supported in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin. That’s expected to grow over 2.5 times by 2060, and rising incomes around the world are likely to drive demand for more corn and soybean exports, which will lead to growth in shipments.
However, the report also said that in its current state, the Upper Mississippi portion of the system “will be unable to support this growth (because) long-term deferred maintenance,” which the Army Corps of Engineers estimates to be more than $1 billion.
“We've been kicking the can down the road way too long,” Lillibridge said.
The options to the inland waterway system are not attractive, Grassley said. The system provides more than $12 billion annually in transportation savings to the American economy.
There’s less pollution because shipping cargo by barge is more fuel efficient than shipping by rail or truck. And a typical inland barge holds more than 15 times the capacity of a rail car and 60 times more than semi-trailer truck. If the cargo transported on the inland waterways each year had to be moved by another mode, it would take an additional 16 percent more tonnage on the railroad system and 49 million truck trips annually to carry the load.
There are 22 rail fatalities and 79 truck fatalities for every one fatality on the waterways system, Grassley said. So moving cargo on the river system is safer and relieves congestion, he said.
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