By TIM ALEXANDER
ANKENY, Iowa — With the federal appropriations system for lock and dam upgrade and expansion seemingly broken beyond repair, a United Soybean Board (USB)-funded study is recommending a different paradigm in approaching the issue of crumbling infrastructure on the nation’s inland waterways system.
“It’s a new approach,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC). “It applies to the famous statement attributed to Albert Einstein: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’”
Steenhoek was referring to the efforts stakeholders have expended in rallying political support for appropriations for previously-passed waterways infrastructure bills, only to see the funding assigned to cost overruns on other projects or otherwise diverted, withheld or withdrawn.
“We have had a lot of WRDA (Water Resources Development Act) bills passed, but the real heavy lift is not on the authorization side, it’s on the appropriations side. Getting money allocated for projects has been so elusive over the years,” he said.
“This time of (financial and political) austerity is apparently going to continue – though we hope not – and we’ve decided that we need to do something different.”
At stake is U.S. farmers’ ability to deliver soybeans to customers in a cost-effective manner that helps them maintain an international competitive advantage. The study, New Approaches for U.S. Lock and Dam Maintenance and Funding, conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, suggests alternative funding and maintenance strategies have the potential to yield better results than the current appropriations process.
“The soybean industry is heavily vested in the lock and dam systems. We would be among the primary beneficiaries of having brand new locks,” Steenhoek explained. “But the reality is that we are having dramatic cost overruns, while failing to maintain the rest of the system.
“The net result is that the lock and dam inventory is becoming less reliable, and susceptible to unexpected closures. We are getting closer and closer to widespread catastrophic failure, and that makes it even easier for opponents of locks and dams to make the ‘it’s no longer worth it’ argument.”
The study determined Congress’ unpredictable and insufficient allocation funding system has caused significant cost escalations and project completion delays.
It determined a bonding style approach to lock and dam financing might prove more feasible than the current funding mechanism.
If implemented, the strategy could achieve greater funding for priority projects in the form of lump sums, diminishing the likelihood of cost overruns and delays that are pandemic among the lock and dam system, according to the study’s findings.
“We would like to be able to assure that funding is there to get damaged locks repaired and up and running in a (minimal) time frame. It’s a shift from a build-and-expand approach, to a preserve-and-maintain approach,” Steenhoek said.
According to the research, one new lock construction project averages $376.8 million in costs, nearly equal to the cost of nine major rehabilitation costs, at an average of $40.7 million each.
“If we allow the systems to further degrade, grain handlers along the river will not invest in barge loading facilities, river terminals or barge fleets,” he cautioned.
Another aspect of the study examined the need for increased emphasis on good stewardship practices regarding money allocated for locks and dams.
“We see all of these dramatic cost overruns and money disappearing into the abyss,” said Steenhoek, “so we are looking at how other countries allocate capital project funding for projects like the Panama Canal expansion and others. The key is that those projects are not subject to annual government allocation processes.”
He and other proponents of “the new approach” are hopeful the 113th Congress will take up the issue of a new WRDA soon.
Both Senate and House committees have expressed interest in passing a WRDA in the first 30 days of the new Congress, according to Steenhoek, who is hoping a new system of funding for locks and dams will be part of the package.
“This is going to be a relevant issue this year,” he predicted.