As U.S Reps. Mike Bost and Rodney Davis toured the Melvin Price Locks and Dam on Tuesday, a barge carrying the equivalent of 875 semis worth of coal came from the north and approached the East Alton locks.
When the barge from northern Illinois moved slowly through the locks on the Mississippi River, it illustrated the importance of maintaining the water infrastructure system.
“Our region’s waterways, chief among them the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, are a critical part of our economy,” Davis said.
Davis discussed the need for funding for locks and dams maintenance amid President Barack Obama requesting no money for the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which helps with long-term navigation improvements and ecological restoration along the Mississippi River system.
Bost and Davis, both Republican members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, are gathering input on metro-east water infrastructure issues in advance of the upcoming reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act, according to their offices.
They also held a closed-door meeting Tuesday at the America’s Central Port in Granite City.
“As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, it’s important to me to see firsthand the condition of waterways infrastructure in Southern Illinois and what Congress can do to support it,” Bost said. “The metro-east region is a hub for the Midwest’s transportation network, a network that, in turn, really drives economic vitality in our region.”
During the Melvin Price tour, Col. Anthony Mitchell of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Lou Dell’Orco, the chief of operations for the Corps’ St. Louis district, described the facility and its operations to the two congressmen.
“Over the past century, federal, state, local, and tribal governments have made enormous investments in new water infrastructure, including locks and dams, levees, and other improvements,” Mitchell said. “However, we must also continue our dialogue regarding responsible, economic and sustainable ways to fund the operation and maintenance of our aging water infrastructure so that it can safely and reliably serve current and future generations.”
Davis said as part of the reauthorization, Congress would not be appropriating money toward specific projects but rather saying what can and can’t be spent. He added the Corps of Engineers works on a project-by-project budget basis.
“It takes away the flexibility that folks like Col. Mitchell could utilize to move money around to higher-priority projects like locks and dams and the structures that may need emergency repairs that can an impact our economy every time we see a breakdown,” Davis said. “They shouldn’t worry where to get the money to patch maintenance needs up. We ought to be able to make sure they have a process in place to build long-term investments into projects like this.”
The previous Congress passed the first reauthorization of WRDA since 2007, with the goal of passing legislation every two years to provide direction and oversight to the administration and the Corps of Engineers on projects necessary to improve water infrastructure, according to Davis’ office.
“We have a responsibility to upgrade and repair our waterways, and this begins by reauthorizing a water resources bill every two years,” Davis said.
Dell’Orco said the key to the success of the locks and dam is to keep the system reliable.
“Like everybody else, our biggest challenge is maintaining the infrastructure,” Dell’Orco said.
He said anywhere between 50 million to 60 million tons of materials, such as grains, petroleum and coal, go through the lock and dam system every year.
When lock and dam staff have a breakdown, or need to make unscheduled repairs, they work with other agencies as best they can to try to keep traffic moving, Dell’Orco said.
“The biggest thing is to minimize the impact of the economy with what we’ve got,” Dell’Orco said. “A safe, reliable channel is what we’re about.”
He said an older lock on the system had its lifespan extended with a $40 million investment.
“If we leverage resources, and put it toward the highest priority... we keep it open, keep it reliable,” Dell’Orco said. “If we’re not staying reliable, shipments will go down. They’ll find another mode.”
Presidential race thoughts
During a brief media availability, Bost and Davis offered some thoughts on the presidential race, as five more states were holding primaries on Tuesday.
Davis said he backed Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has since dropped out, and Bost said he voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“If you could separate yourself, and not be in our position, it’s really a great experiment in politics to watch,” Bost said. “Think about my district, (Donald) Trump won all but one county, however, Bernie (Sanders) won all but two. So what’s it say?”