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Legislators Take Note of Rough Summer On Mississippi

Months after separate incidents and low water levels halted barge traffic on the Mississippi, legislators work to improve infrastructure, avoid future snafus

Published on: Mar 19, 2013

Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Thursday spearheaded groups of legislators from Illinois in securing support for maintaining commercial river traffic on the Mississippi River during droughts and floods and enhancing public-private partnership for river projects.

Additional legislation introduced as companion bills in the House and Senate calls for broad reforms in river infrastructure and Army Corps project systems.

Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act

In partnership with Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., and Bill Enyart, D-Ill., Durbin announced one of two sponsored bills to reform the river system. The first, the "Mississippi River Navigation Sustainment Act" specifically calls for projects to improve disaster plans for floods and droughts on the Mississippi.

Legislators begin push to reform river transportation
Legislators begin push to reform river transportation

Among the provisions, Durbin's bill calls for an extreme weather management study, improved disaster forecasting tools, expanded flexibility for the Army Corps' response plans, and an environmental pilot program to protect and restore the fish and wildlife habitat in the Middle Mississippi river.

In highlighting aspects of the bill, Durbin recalled the 2012 drought's toll on river traffic.

"We came close to economic catastrophe when ongoing drought conditions threatened to disrupt the movement of billions of dollars in goods along the Mississippi River.  Only through better than expected rainfall, the expedited removal of rock pinnacles at Congress' request and some creative reservoir management was the river able to stay open," Durbin said. 

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"The Army Corps of Engineers should be commended for their efforts over the last few months, but it is clear that we need to be better prepared for these extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and more severe," Durbin added. "Our legislation will make government and businesses that rely on the Mississippi River more prepared for the next flood or drought that threatens jobs and economic activity."

Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act

Additional but separate legislation, also offered by Durbin and a group of Illinois legislators, calls for improved partnership between the public and private sector in reforming river infrastructure projects.

Joining Durbin, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.; Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Rodney Davis submitted the plan Thursday, estimating that it would clear a $60 billion backlog in Army Corps projects, including infrastructure upgrades.

The "Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act" would authorize a pilot program for 5 years that would identify up to 15 previously authorized navigation, flood damage reduction, and hurricane and storm damage reduction projects for participation. It would also explore agreements between the Army Corps of Engineers and private entities for alternatives to traditional financing, planning, design, and construction models.

For the projects that are chosen for participation, the Army Corps of Engineers and private entities would enter into agreements to distribute the planning, design, and construction processes in an effort to speed up project delivery.

The legislation would require also an audit of activities by the private entities, and a study by a non-interested third party to determine whether a proposed agreement provides a better public and financial benefit than the current system. 

Additionally, Durbin says, these agreements could bring more private investment in water infrastructure projects. The legislation does not allow privatization of any federal asset.

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"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," Durbin said. "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."

WAVE4

Also Thursday, Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., Bill Cassidy, R-La., Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., and Pete Olson, R-Texas, introduced legislation to modernize the lock and dam infrastructure on the inland waterways system.

The legislation incorporates the Inland Waterways Capital Development Plan, which prioritizes essential construction and major rehabilitation projects, revises current beneficiaries' cost-sharing for these projects, reforms the Corps of Engineers' internal project delivery process, and suggests a revenue enhancement – a 30 to 45% increase in the existing user fee the navigation industry pays – to fund infrastructure investments.

"Efficient and reliable transportation of goods on our inland waterways is essential to economic development, job creation, and remaining competitive in the global marketplace," Whitfield said. "Our aging infrastructure jeopardizes efficient waterborne commerce and highlights the need for the WAVE4 Act that will implement a comprehensive plan to improve project management and put in place an objective investment strategy that will prioritize our infrastructure needs."

The bill, "Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency, and Environment Act of 2013" comes with a companion Senate bill, "Reinvesting in Vital Economic Rivers and Waterways Act of 2013 (RIVER)."

Related stories:

Mississippi River Reopens After Oil Spill

River Shipping On Mississippi Remains At Risk

Mississippi River Navigation Issues Persist

Bigger Effort Needed To Improve Mississippi River Infrastructure

Corps Begins Mississippi River Rock Removal

Blunt Coordinates Mississippi River Caucus