A flood of new infrastructure funding in several bills, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, has directed hundreds of millions of new dollars toward projects, including waterways projects. There may be more to come, depending on what happens in Congress, which must pass an omnibus bill or continuing resolution by next month to keep funding the government.
All this new funding represents the welcome culmination of decades of behind-the-scenes work and education by the inland navigation industry and its friends, especially farm groups, in Congress. For those on the ground (or in the water), celebration must be tempered by reality. Many locks and dams have been operating at well beyond their design life for years. Since their construction, innovative methods have been developed to repair, rehab and extend their useful life, some developed under the pressure of unscheduled breakdowns during the “fix as fail” era. The consequences of long neglect can’t be undone in a single funding cycle.
For the Corps of Engineers, ramping up from a long period of uncertain and inadequate funding to a period of relatively more abundant funding can bring its own issues. New funding means new Corps personnel must be hired and trained. The same is true for the private contractors on which some Corps divisions rely for maintenance and rehab work. In a tight job market, recruitment is no easy matter.
More funding means more lock and dam rehab and repair work being done, which means more closures and delays—all of which need to be coordinated with each other and with industry to minimize impacts to navigation. At a recent stakeholders’ meeting with industry representatives, the Corps’ director of the Planning Center of Expertise for Inland Navigation noted that until a couple of years ago, the Corps was developing between two and four Major Rehabilitation Evaluation Reports a year. Now there are 13 active ones.
The long history of relationship-building and constant communication between the Corps and the industry becomes more important than ever in managing these issues. When the Corps requires contractors to perform lock and dam work within a tight timeframe, the contractor might respond that it will cost more with that condition. The normal, laudable instinct is to save taxpayer money. But there are times when it may be more desirable to pay extra to a contractor to avoid higher costs overall to industry for protracted shutdowns and delays. Full cost-benefit analyses of all the impacts of a closure can help decision-makers make the right call.
More money can bring its own challenges, as Tracy Zea, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc., has noted. During a time of logistics challenges across every mode, including rail and trucking, lock and dam closures will inevitably contribute their share to increased shipper costs, even with the best cooperation and coordination. Despite these challenges, waterways transportation will continue to be a lower-cost jewel of the U.S. bulk transportation network. In the long run, all these desperately needed repairs and rehabs will make the inland waterways system stronger and more reliable than ever.
To quote David Dale, program director at the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division when he retired, “It’s not what’s best for industry or best for the Corps, but what’s the best value for the nation that counts.”