An aging U.S. waterway infrastructure — which carries more than 60 percent of America’s grain and other commodity exports — may be set to get a funding boost from Congress that will allow for more than a facelift.

In fact, the spine of the system is in desperate need of repair and new construction and long-term plans are coalescing to fulfil those needs.

Two bills have been introduced in Congress — “Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency, and Environment Act” (WAVE 4, H.R. 1149) in the House and the “Water Resources Development Act" (WRDA, S.601) in the Senate — that address waterway concerns.

“Construction, dredging and repairs to our locks and dams will help ensure the reliability of the most affordable, energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable mode of transporting agricultural products,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, about the House bill.

The bill’s sponsor, Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield, said, “Efficient and reliable transportation of goods on our inland waterways is essential to economic development, job creation, and remaining competitive in the global marketplace.

“Our aging infrastructure jeopardizes efficient waterborne commerce and highlights the need for the WAVE4 Act that will implement a comprehensive plan to improve project management and put in place an objective investment strategy that will prioritize our infrastructure needs.”

Farm Press recently spoke with Debra Colbert, senior vice-president with the Waterways Councill, about the state of the nation’s waterway systems, Congress’ approach to funding, and how the barge-towing industry keeps much skin in the game. Among her comments:

On exceeding the system’s design life…

“The problems we’re facing in the inland industry is that the lock and dam infrastructure is outdated. More than half of the locks and dams have exceeded their 50-year design life. We’re seeing a lot of aging and continual degradation of the system.

“While it’s still reliable for shippers, if we continue funding it at the insufficient levels of the last several years that trend will quickly result in the system’s unreliability and potential catastrophic failure. Some of the issues related to the low-water crisis that threatened shipping in 2012 could be a regular occurrence.

“At Waterways Council we’ve been advocating for some time for a reasonable, forward-looking plan that will be able to provide the funding for infrastructure improvements in an efficient way.”

On the “deal” between shippers and the government…

“Essentially, what’s being done currently — which has been in place since 1986 when a waterways bill was enacted — is a deal between the government and barge and towing operators. The operators pay for half the cost of new construction of navigation projects and major rehabilitation on the system. That 50 percent is paid for through a 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax based on the amount of diesel fuel burned on the system.

“That means there are only about 300 taxpayers that pay into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. Recreational boaters don’t pay it, commercial fishermen don’t pay it, passenger vessels don’t pay it. We’re the only segment that pays that user fee.

“Generally, that user fee generates around $85 million to $100 million per year. That amount is then matched by the government’s general treasury dollars. Again, those funds are to be used for new construction and rehabbing the waterways system.

 “Some continue to say we’re the most highly subsidized transportation mode. That is completely and totally inaccurate. In fact, we pay into a system that benefits many — those who receive hydro-power from the dams, municipal water supplies, flood control and protection, waterfront development, and many other things. All those things are as a result of the lock and dam system.”