EDITORIAL: Reduced inland waterways support will spawn new costs

The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

Feb. 16–A month ago, we called for stepping up investments to upgrade the nation’s aging lock and dam system, in particular on the Mississippi River. Farmers, manufacturers and other vital sectors rely on the system to ship billions of dollars in crops and products to market annually. But billions of dollars in repairs and replacement projects are needed to keep the system operational.

This week we received fresh evidence of the importance of these infrastructure investments. A University of Wisconsin study found that a break down in the system, such as the forced closure of a lock on the upper Mississippi, would send 489,496 additional truckloads of cargo rumbling along roads between Minneapolis and St. Louis.

The cost of pavement damage inflicted by that extra traffic would top $28 million, according to the study, while spewing an extra 212,464 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. One glance at a Midwest road map shows a large portion of those costs would be inflicted on Iowa.

What the study shows is the interconnected nature of infrastructure investments. Highways and bridges grab most of the infrastructure headlines, but if you neglect inland waterways, you end up causing costly problems on roadways.

That’s why we appreciated President Donald Trump’s repeated calls for a large, comprehensive approach to repairing the nation’s infrastructure. But his plan unveiled this week raises more questions than answers, especially for inland waterways.

For three decades, waterway project costs have been split 50-50 between the federal government and commercial shippers who pay a diesel fuel tax, with dollars flowing into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. We hoped for increased financial commitment by the federal government and from commercial interests who benefit from upgrades.

But at first glance, it appears the Trump plan would impose new fees on shippers without a solid pledge to increase the federal investments. It’s also possible waterway infrastructure project costs would be turned over to state and local governments, or to private entities. At the same time, a White House budget plan significantly cuts funding to the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the lock and dam system.

We understand nothing is set in stone, and that Congress must still weigh in on both the infrastructure plan and the federal budget. But we would oppose any effort to pull back the federal commitment to improved waterways in order to shift the burden entirely to shippers, states or local governments. We’d like to see more private investment, but the Trump plan appears to scuttle a valuable partnership.

And as the Wisconsin study shows, when we pull back on inland waterway investments, we’re not really saving money. In the end, somebody pays the freight.

–Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.