By TIM ALEXANDER
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Legislation that would establish public-private partnerships for lock and dam modernization on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers was introduced in Congress March 14, by Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, along with Reps. Cheri Bustos and Rodney Davis.
It joins a crowded sea of recently introduced waterways infrastructure bills, sharing the common thread of shifting the onus of funding vital waterways-related repairs and upgrades to a public-private partnership system.
“It’s clear we need a new model – one that speeds up the process of planning and constructing projects and brings to the table greater private investment,” said Durbin, when announcing the Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act (WIN-P3). “Our bipartisan bill will provide a new way to upgrade and maintain our water infrastructure investments even as we face severe fiscal constraints in Washington.”
Under WIN-P3, a five-year pilot program would identify and target up to 15 previously authorized waterways infrastructure projects for completion. The bill addresses a longstanding backlog of unfunded work upgrading and modernizing the transportation infrastructure on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
This would be done with agreements between the Army Corps of Engineers and private entities offering an alternative to traditional financing, planning, design and construction models, WIN-P3’s sponsors and proponents say.
“This bill would provide for an innovative partnership between public and private stakeholders to get the work on the rivers accomplished,” said Paul Taylor, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA).
Bill Wykes, chair of the Illinois Soybean Assoc. (ISA) and a farmer from Yorkville, called the bill a win for state agriculture. “These are exactly the efforts and actions that we enjoy seeing after we meet with legislators and advocate for key issues in Washington, D.C.,” he said, after a week in Washington lobbying elected officials for lock and dam upgrades, among other legislative priorities.
“Many other groups have been working on the issue as well, and that has helped Congress come closer to understanding these challenges during the past two years.”
Jim Tarman, field services director for the ICGA and a two-decade veteran of fighting for waterway infrastructure improvements on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, said the term “public-private partnerships” has become the latest buzzword on Capitol Hill for infrastructure funding.
“I would call WIN-P3 a compliment to (Rep. Ed Whitfield’s (R-Ky.)) Capital Development Plan” for cost-sharing for river infrastructure projects, he said, “because it (proposes) public-private partnerships.”
WIN-P3 and Whitfield’s plan, known as WAVE 4 (see related article), joins a bill proposing cost-sharing legislation for dam repairs by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). That bill, the American Waterways Act, has yet to be introduced.
Sorting out the best components of all of the waterways bills and incorporating them into a new proposed Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) could prove beneficial to advancing final waterways legislation, which is why ICGA is supportive of all of current waterways infrastructure bills on the table.
“When the WRDA bill hits the floor of the respective chambers, we hope that key components of those bills will be included in the final WRDA package,” said Tarman, who also spent a recent week in Washington lobbying for issues important to corn growers.
“Of anything we talked about (with legislators), the WRDA bill on both sides had the most enthusiasm I’ve seen for quite some time. WRDA is such a huge bill, and we’ve been working for appropriations for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (which administers lock repair funding) since 2007, the last year a WRDA was passed.
“There is now great enthusiasm for WRDA, but with a lot on (Congress’) docket, we know (WRDA) is not a done deal,” he added.
With an influx of different, yet similar, cost-sharing river infrastructure bills to consider, the big picture is still as clear as mud, to those not directly involved with lock and dam repair and funding for inland waterways. But evidence of real progress came March 20 when the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee passed its version of a new WRDA and advanced it to the Senate floor.
“We’re hoping to see it (considered by the full Senate) in the April-May time frame,” Tarman said.
Durbin, Davis and Rep. Bill Enyart (D-Ill.) also introduced a companion bill to WIN-P3, the Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act, which would enhance the ability of southern Illinois and the Army Corps to respond quickly to extreme weather events, such as drought, in order to maintain uninterrupted river traffic (see related article).