As this issue goes to press, not all the outcomes of the election have been clearly established. But we already know the election has resulted in a Washington where bipartisan cooperation is even more necessary than it was before.
It’s clear that on many issues, Americans remain divided. That’s why it’s a good time for Congress to get to work on rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Each year, locks and dams age another year past their design life, and the number of unscheduled lock closures creeps up. It’s an issue where agreement on goals has usually been bipartisan. Disagreement has been about ways and means and cost rather than goals.
The case for waterways infrastructure has been tirelessly made for our decades by advocacy organizations, which have friends and supporters in both parties. Congress has made some encouraging progress in recent years on waterways infrastructure, on a bipartisan basis. A major rehab and repair of five locks and dams on the Illinois Waterway has just been completed, at a very favorable cost-benefit ratio.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, made up of members of Congress and government former officials, estimates that to date, policymakers have committed trillions in financial support to coronavirus relief measures, including $587 billion through administrative actions, $3.8 trillion through legislative actions and $7 trillion through Federal Reserve actions. Approximately $414 billion (70 percent) of administrative support has been committed or disbursed, along with $2.2 trillion (almost 60 percent) of legislative support and $2.2 trillion (over 30 percent) of Federal Reserve support. In light of those expenses, the amounts needed for infrastructure rehabilitation, including waterways infrastructure, look modest, especially when their long-lasting benefits are considered.
The uncertainties of COVID-19 remain, but the trade situation has recently improved as China has stepped up its commodity buying all over the world, including of American agricultural products. That again highlights the importance of waterways infrastructure.
Congress should, at the very least, adjust the private-public partnership that currently exists between the waterways industry and the government by passing a Water Resources Development Act that permanently changes the federal cost-share for water projects to 75 percent federal, 25 percent from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (rather than the 65/35 split proposed by some members of Congress). This would allow faster, more cost-effective repair and replacement projects to complete the task of finally replacing our aging, Depression-era lock and dam infrastructure.
Congress should also expand a pilot program to expedite dredging after high-water and low-water events. The Lower Missouri River basin, which suffered from last year’s unprecedented floods and is now coping with low water, needs about $18 billion more for proper restoration and maintenance, according to a recent letter from members of Congress of adjacent states.
Nothing would be more encouraging for Americans after a divisive election than to see Congress getting to work across the aisle on infrastructure improvements that will benefit all Americans. Improvements in roads and other infrastructure should lead to greater waterways usage as the economy recovers, so we hope waterways get due consideration in overall infrastructure plans. Their benefits will extend well past the current coronavirus crisis decades into the future.