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Obama calls for upgrades to national infrastructure
Illinois Correspondent

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — An initiative to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure outlined by President Barack Obama during his State of the Union Address Feb. 12 was met with mixed reaction from some agriculture and transportation groups.

Obama stressed the importance of funding repairs and overhauls of major transportation infrastructure commonly relied upon by agriculture, but some listeners expressed concern the President omitted certain modes of transportation from his mention of the “Fix-It-First” program, while others wondered about funding.
Fix-It-First would “put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country,” Obama said. “And to make sure the taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods, modern pipelines to withstand a storm, modern schools worthy of our children.”

What was missing from the statement, according to some, was a commitment to update and modernize America’s inland waterways and lock systems. “We were somewhat disappointed that the President didn’t mention inland waterways or rivers among bridges, roads and ports when he talked about infrastructure,” said Paul Taylor, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA).

The ICGA has promoted lock and dam rehabilitation for two decades. Taylor was quick to point out Obama was heavily involved in removing stumbling blocks that delayed work in reopening the Mississippi River to navigation due to low water.

Still, “the inland waterways and now its aging lock and dam infrastructure is key to our nation’s transportation network, and to its growing exports,” said Taylor. “We must urge the administration and those in Congress to consider recapitalization of this critical network for shipping.”

The vice president of the Waterways Council, Inc., Paul C. Rohde, was disappointed another important “R” in transportation – rivers – was overlooked in the text of the speech.

“Rail, roads and runways are important, but this administration is, forgive the pun, missing the boat on the vital role river transportation plays in moving the products that are the underpinnings of our economy,” said Rohde. “And now in particular is a critical time in D.C. We have two chairs in Representative (Bill) Shuster (R-Pa.) and Senator (Barbara) Boxer (D-Calif.) who are ready to go forward on WRDA (the Water Resources Development Act).

“The WAVE4 (Waterways Are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency and Environment) bill will be reintroduced, Senator (Robert) Casey (D-Pa.) will launch a bill (planned for Feb. 15) and Senator (Lamar) Alexander (R-Tenn.) is working on his American Waterworks Act. The legislative branch is engaged on the needs of our river infrastructure.”

Bridges a welcome mention
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Iowa-based Soy Transportation Coalition (STC), was not only pleased to hear transportation referenced during Obama’s speech, but especially happy to hear references to structurally deficient bridges and specific public-private partnerships to address transportation challenges.

“The (STC) is demonstrating our commitment to our nation’s bridge inventory – particularly rural bridges where the problem is most acute – and serving as an example of the concept of public-private partnerships that the President is espousing, by approaching state departments of transportation to develop a collaboration in which we encourage the use of technology to better evaluate the condition of our bridges,” said Steenhoek. “We’re willing to put our money where our mouth is.”

He also suggested because of a “dramatic underinvestment in our nation’s bridge inventory,” the federal government needs to increase partnerships with state governments to finance transportation infrastructure.

The American Soybean Assoc. (ASA) welcomed Obama’s comments on multiple ASA priorities, but couldn’t help but notice that river transportation wasn’t mentioned in his speech. “We would encourage the president to remember ... that our waterways infrastructure, including our locks and dams on the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers, are also in need of critical repairs,” said ASA President Danny Murphy.

“These waterways serve as a vital artery for the movement of soybeans and other essential commodities, and investments in maintaining that infrastructure have immediate benefits in creating jobs and restoring market confidence.”

Fair rural funding important
Scott Sigman, transportation and export infrastructure lead for the Illinois Soybean Assoc., explained the rural agricultural production that farmers require to move goods to market requires investments for safety, efficiency and reliability. “County engineers and knowledgeable public officials have recognized that, regarding infrastructure, we should repair existing roads and bridges before building new ones,” he said.

“The important details in such a program will be interesting to see, to ensure that funding does not just get funneled to the most populated areas to alleviate congestion around the major hubs and support major freight corridors. 

It must also be channeled to support the more prevalent mini-freight hubs or micro-freight corridors such as exist around country river, rail and shuttle elevators and transload facilities.

“The way the President’s plan eventually defines how the country pays for infrastructure improvements must be at least fair. No costly, undue burden should be placed upon farmers or agribusiness for the food, feed and energy that the whole nation benefits from being efficiently produced and delivered from rural areas, not just given the current economic climate we’re in, but for the country’s future.

“We need the investments in rural infrastructure, be it for locks and dams, rail or road improvements, but just spending and not making critical investments in the right infrastructure, to support farmers, would not be prudent government,” Sigman added.
The Assoc. of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) could directly benefit from an economic and jobs plan that includes funding for the construction or refurbishment of U.S. road, bridge, rail and waterway infrastructure.

Though Obama emphasized the need for more infrastructure investment to put people to work and grow the economy, AEM President Dennis Slater said short-term stimulus funding represented a “quick fix” and fails to address long-term infrastructure improvements.