The lock and dam system is 80 years old this year, and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., is worried it is showing its age.
Bustos, who toured Lock and Dam 15 in the Quad-Cities on Tuesday with Reps. Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley, both Iowa Democrats, has introduced a bill to investigate the potential of public-private partnerships to improve the aging lock and dam infrastructure. A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Under the legislation, a pilot project would be created allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pick 15 projects that would be planned, designed and constructed in concert with the private sector or some other non-federal entity.
"The Mississippi River is absolutely critical to the economic well-being of our region," Bustos said. "That is why action must be taken to expand and modernize the locks and dams that help transport our goods and products worldwide."
A public-private partnership would be more flexible and allow projects to move faster, helping farmers ship soybeans and corn or companies such as Deere & Co. and Caterpillar that ship their products on the river, Bustos said.
Under the current funding model, infrastructure improvements would stretch until 2047 to complete the $60 billion backlog of projects, Bustos said. The bill doesn't address lock expansion.
Lock and Dam 15 isn't the worst example of worn-down infrastructure, said Tom Heinold, acting chief of operations for the Rock Island District of the Corps of Engineers. Gates at the lock were repaired in 2010. He said miter gates at Locks 11, 12 and 13 are visibly in need of repair.
"You dunk it in the water for 60 years, it is going to begin to decay," Heinold said of the miter gates.
The difficult economic times shouldn't be an excuse to not pay for infrastructure improvements, Braley said.
"Every one of these facilities was built in the Great Depression, so don't tell me that something can't be done when times are tight," he said.
The Inland Waterways Operators and American Waterways Council support the bill. A fact sheet from American Waterways said previous studies have favored cost-sharing between industry and government for new lock construction and major rehabilitation projects of more than $100 million. Projects of less than $100 million should be left for complete federal funding.
The plan is similar to partnerships created for federal highway projects that proved fruitful, said American Waterways president Mike Toohey.
"Having watched what happened with the highway program, we thought it would be a good idea to provide more capacity while sharing the cost," he said. "To our minds it is a worthy idea and should be something included in this year’s (Water Resources Development Act) bill."
A railroad bridge over the Mississippi River at Burlington is an example of public-private partnerships that benefited infrastructure when a creative way to fund a project is necessary, Loebsack said.
"It isn't appropriate to use gum and Band-Aids to fix this stuff," he said.