An estimated $60 billion backlog in construction projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is raising red flags for farmers and politicians alike. Experts across a variety of fields say America's river infrastructure needs improving, and the everyday consumer could pay the price if the problem goes unfixed.
Jim Piper is the lockmaster at Lock and Dam 11 in Dubuque. Monday afternoon, he and experts in fields ranging from agriculture to marine construction and transportation explained to Congressman Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) just why the nation's lock and dam systems are in dire need of upgrades.
"It's only as strong as its weakest link, so if you have a piece of your structure fail, then it affects everybody on the river in the system," Piper said. "We don't want any catastrophic failures and we don't want any delays."
The U.S. has a total of 220 locks and dams throughout the nation on its major rivers. Aging river infrastructure threatens to slow or halt the transportation of goods via barge - something for which we'd all pay, according to Iowa State University Extension Dubuque office program manager Jason Neises.
"River transportation is critical for farmers and producers to get their commodities to market cheaply and efficiently, along with rail transportation and highway transportation," Neises, who toured Lock and Dam 11 with Braley, said. "If any one of those parts of the system is not working efficiently, then it's going to increase commodity prices, which increases food prices."
That's why Braley is proposing legislation this week to create a national infrastructure plan that would help ensure upgrades get completed on time.
"This legislation that we're going to be introducing has to do with how you develop a pilot program to look at bringing private money and private oversight to reducing the delays of getting some of these major public works projects completed," Braley said.
The legislation, called the Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act, would create public-private partnerships between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the locks and dams, and private companies.
Carter Newt is one owner of Newt Marine, a marine construction and transportation company based in Dubuque.
"Environmentally, it's a very safe, efficient transportation system," he said, of transporting goods via America's waterways. "Economically, it's got a huge impact, and I don't think most people realize that. Without the river, everybody would have higher costs of goods."
Barge traffic also keeps the air cleaner and roads more clear. One 15-barge tow can carry the load equivalent of 200 jumbo train hopper cars or 870 large semi trucks. The Iowa Department of Transportation has a graphic showing load equivalents. That is HERE.
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