The logjam in federal funding for improving the Mississippi River’s lock and dam system was the main topic of a two-hour conference Tuesday at the Hotel Blackhawk in Davenport.
The session, convened by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, was aimed at building support for making improvements to the river’s infrastructure, which the participants argued is necessary to boost the region’s economy.
The panel, which was dominated by industry groups and government officials, bemoaned the state of the river’s infrastructure and the level of spending on it. A speaker from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers likened current expenditures to devoting just $50 a year on the upkeep of an old car.
“Every year, we have more components that are nearing their breaking point,” said Gary Meden, deputy commander for programs and project management for the Corps’ Rock Island district.
Meden said the Rock Island district alone has a backlog of almost $1 billion in “prioritized maintenance” projects.
Finding the money for expanded locks, as well as ongoing maintenance needs, will be difficult. And much of the discussion Tuesday turned toward how to get Congress to appropriate the money in a lean fiscal environment.
Afterward, Branstad suggested the possibility of a state-based compact to help raise revenue.
“We’re open to looking at different solutions,” he said.
Some industry officials say not all the beneficiaries of the river pay for its upkeep.
“We need to take a look at all users of the Mississippi, as we would develop some kind of an authority that would give us, I think, more options,” added Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who moderated the discussion before a nearly full Gold Room.
It was six years ago that Congress resolved a years-long fight to authorize expansion of seven locks along the Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway. But lawmakers have never appropriated the money to pay for it. Corps officials also say funding for major rehabilitation has lagged.
An industry-supported bill would provide an avenue for building the locks as well as funding several other projects by raising the fuel tax that shippers pay, and officials urged that people push that.
“We have members of Congress who have given their good name to co-sponsor this legislation,” said Michael Toohey, president and chief executive officer of the Waterways Council Inc., which represents barge and other river interests. “So it’s a credible piece of legislation, and it’s moving. This is the year.”
The plan also boosts federal investment and has drawn the opposition of the Obama administration, which says it leans too heavily on taxpayers. The administration has proposed its own plan, which relies more on industry revenue. The industry has said it would cost them too much and push higher costs onto consumers.
There also are differences within the industry on how to approach the funding question, and some of that was on display at the conference.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, has urged greater emphasis on major rehabilitation of locks, rather than expansion, because of doubts about whether it can be achieved. He also proposed reforming how projects are financed so a reliable funding stream could be put in place instead of relying on what he described as the fits and starts of congressional appropriations.
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“How you allocate money is just as important as how much money you allocate,” Steenhoek said. “The argument can’t simply be more money, more money, more money.”
Aside from the complexities of getting funding, local officials argued that investment is imperative, particularly in gaining access to world markets, such as China.
“The Mississippi River is our opportunity to be involved in the global economy,” said Tara Barney, president and chief executive of the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, one of the participants.
During the time for public comments, a representative of the Izaak Walton League noted the absence of an environmental representative.
“While I thank the governor and the lieutenant governor for putting together this forum, I can’t help but notice that the forum does not include stakeholders from the environmental sector,” said Olivia Dorothy, Upper Mississippi River coordinator for the league.
The 2007 bill that authorized locks expansion also approved significant investment in the river’s ecosystem. Those projects, too, have gone unfunded.
Panelists and members of the audience said they hoped the conference would lead to greater coalition-building. Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba said mayors representing Mississippi River communities have banded together and pushed for the creation of a congressional caucus to push river investment.
Branstad said he also will take up the matter with other governors.