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View from around the state: Investment in river transportation at critical stage

One of the greatest transportation systems in the world is in our backyard, and it’s in danger of falling apart.

The Mississippi River is a major highway system that is part of an inland waterways system that moves goods and commodities our economy depends on. Locally in 2011, more than 96 million tons of commodities moved through the locks from Red Wing, Minn., to Dubuque, Iowa.

But it’s an old system. More than half the locks on our country’s waterways are more than 50 years old and in desperate need of repair and upgrade. The American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave our nation’s inland waterways a rating of D-. There is an average of 52 service interruptions per day throughout the system, causing barges to be stopped for hours.

We need waterways to alleviate road and rail congestion. The report card says that our waterways carry the equivalent of 51 million truck trips per year. A large barge has the same capacity as 70 trucks or rail cars. A barge can move one ton of cargo 576 miles on one gallon of fuel. It’s far more energy efficient than rail or truck transportation and is much more environmentally friendly.

The collapse of our waterways system would be an economic disaster for our region. Farmers like Kevin Hoyer, a soybean farmer in West Salem who is the national director of the American Soybean Association, relies on barges to get his crop to market. Wisconsin provides 19 percent of the nation’s soybean crop, and our country supplies one-third of the world’s supply.

Dairyland Power Cooperative, which provides electricity for 600,000 people, receives one-third of its fuel supply by barge, says John Carr, vice president of strategic planning.

Rick Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, a division of Cargill, said his company’s barge line shipped 95 different commodities last year like salt, grain, crops, coal and equipment. He said none of the 21 locks between La Crosse and St. Louis have auxiliary locks in the event of a breakdown.

The need for investment is critical. And the waterways industry is willing to step up to help get it done, with Congressional approval.

An updated Water Resources Development Act was passed by the Senate in May. A provision of that was the River Act, sponsored by both Minnesota senators, which would include rehabilitation of the locks and dams along the Mississippi River.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, is one of the co-sponsors of the House version of the bill which still needs approval.

The waterways industry is willing to pay 30 to 45 percent more on a fuel tax of 20 cents per gallon — increasing to 26 to 29 cents per gallon — to help raise more money, which is matched by the government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget.

The bill — which has bipartisan support — would create an annual appropriation of $380 million to help pay for needed projects, prioritize those projects and improve project management.

The need is critical and clear. In a global economy, we need an efficient waterways system to deliver and receive products. We urge the House to pass this legislation and keep our local and country’s economy moving and growing.

 — LaCrosse Tribune

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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