Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) gave a video presentation at this year’s Waterways Symposium November 12, one day after she learned that she had been nominated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to serve as co-chair of the powerful House Democratic Steering committee. She already serves on the influential House Appropriations Committee and the House Committee on Agriculture.
A long-time friend and supporter of the inland waterways, Bustos noted in her presentation that her home is on River Drive and has views of the Mississippi River, which also makes up the entire western border of her congressional district. Eight locks and dams fall within her district. She is well aware, she said, that a single lock failure on the Upper Mississippi system could halt the movement of the 60 percent of U.S. grain exports that transits through it.
Our industry has gotten a lot of bipartisan support in Congress over the past few years. The completion and opening of Olmsted Locks and Dam, the successful conclusion of the multi-lock repairs and upgrades on the Illinois Waterway, and the commencement of the Lower Mississippi River deepening project are all testaments to the tremendous amount of hard work that went on behind the scenes by many, many people on a bipartisan basis.
Those achievements, real and solid as they are, are only the beginning. The waterways system is trying to catch up from decades of underinvestment and neglect. Bustos mentioned the $9 billion backlog of lock and dam maintenance remaining. She said she had to “fight hard” for $4.5 million funding for a study of the Navigation Ecosystem Sustainability Program for pre-construction design.
Now that the elections are behind us, there’s a good chance a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020 could be passed. The House Transportation Committee website calls it “legislation that is essential to everyday American life.”
Lame-duck sessions have traditionally been good for the waterways. The change in the cost-share for Olmsted Locks and Dam that allowed that project to move forward and saved more than a billion dollars was enacted during a lame-duck session in 2014. Right now, Congress is reconciling the House and Senate versions of the current WRDA. The Senate version has a permanent change in the cost-share for projects to 65/35; the House version makes that change but sunsets it after seven years.
The COVID-19 pandemic adds urgency, and also some fiscal caution. Both parties agree that infrastructure investment, including waterways infrastructure, is one of the main ways to help bring the economy back from the damage caused by lockdowns and slowdowns. Already, 78 members of Congress had signed on to a commitment to change the cost-share to a 75/25 split permanently. That would still be the best option for the waterways. After the trillions spent on COVID-related stimulus packages, a 65/35 split may be a more realistic expectation, but it would be a win nevertheless—especially if it is made permanent.
As Bustos said at the end of her presentation, “Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation left us a world-class waterways infrastructure.” Investing in it for the future by making the Senate version part of WRDA would be a big step forward not just for the inland waterways, but for the American economy.