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Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Oct 23, 2017

Ag, shipping interests push for infrastructure improvements

Aug 07, 2017

Ed Tibbetts, Quad-City Times

 

DAVENPORT — The contrast was clear.

About an hour into a tour Friday aimed at building support for upgrades to locks on the nation’s rivers, a barge carrying several dozen people passed underneath the Interstate 74 bridge.

Not far off was a separate barge, where workers were dredging the Mississippi River for piers to support the new I-74 bridge.

The bridge and lock system were built about the same time, back in the 1930s. Yet, the bridge is now being replaced. Meanwhile, the nation’s waterways are being neglected, organizers of the tour said.

Just take the nearly 80-year-old LaGrange Lock and Dam, about 60 miles west of Springfield on the Illinois River.

“It is virtually falling apart before our eyes,” said Martin Hettel, of American Commercial Barge Line and who chairs the Inland Waterways Users Board.

Upgrading the nation’s lock and dam system has long been a priority of shipping and agriculture interests, along with Midwest lawmakers and politicians. And Friday’s barge tour, organized by the corn growers associations in Iowa and Illinois, was aimed at shining a light on the lock and dam system that moves about 60 percent of U.S. grain exports to market.

The condition of Lock and Dam 15, at Rock Island, is relatively average, an official with the Army Corps of Engineers said. But as the barge locked through, officials pointed out a 15-foot section of wall that the Corps had demolished this spring. The wall was in poor shape and rather than take the chance that pieces would fall into the river, the section was taken out.

If there are major upgrades, other parts of the system will likely see new infrastructure spending first. The LaGrange lock is the top rehabilitation priority of the Rock Island District of the Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, shipping and agriculture interests are hopeful that action will be taken on the plan to upgrade and lengthen seven locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Congress authorized the expansion in 2007, over the objections of critics who said there is no need for expanded locks. Still, no money has been appropriated.

The Mississippi River locks due for expansion are between the southern tip of Iowa and St. Louis. The project, known as the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, had a price tag 10 years ago of $4 billion. That figure would likely be higher now. It includes environmental restoration work that also was authorized.

President Donald Trump’s pledge to usher in a huge investment in infrastructure has given some new hope that not only more money will be devoted to fixing roads, bridges and airports — but that waterways will get a boost, too.

Not only is there a push to authorize new locks, but maintenance work needed to extend the life of the locks. It’s been 12 years since there was a major rehabilitation of a lock in the Rock Island District, Corps officials say.

“We are way behind,” said Tom Heinold, deputy chief of operations for the Rock Island District of the Corps.

It’s not clear when Congress might take up an infrastructure bill. The president has said it’s a high priority, but health care has been a dominant issue so far, and tax reform is next on Congress’ agenda.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who was one of three members of Congress along for the ride Friday, said the administration has promised her that a draft plan will be out by this fall.

“Whether we can move on it this year, that’s a tricky question,” she said. Duckworth is a member of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. Also on the trip were Reps. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, and Rod Blum, R-Iowa.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was to have been on the tour, but she had a travel delay that caused her to miss it.

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