March 28, 2013
Since the founding of America and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the federal government has played an important role in constructing transportation infrastructure. Federal investment in transportation infrastructure is what keeps the United States united. With two centuries of effort, our nation has been able to enjoy the most advanced, efficient transportation system in the world, and it is vital to our global competitiveness. The benefits of the system are real – but so are the challenges.
Perhaps our most daunting challenge lies within the waterborne transportation system. Every day, barges and ships move goods in and out of our ports and harbors, along our rivers, and across the Great Lakes. The efficiencies inherent in water-based transportation help our steel industry stay competitive, keep our energy system reliable and affordable, and provide farmers with the ability to get their products to consumers across the world. In fact, today about 16% of U.S. domestic freight travels by water. And when it comes to international trade, about 95% of exports travel by water, accounting for almost one-third of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Despite the economic importance of our ports and waterways, America has failed to properly maintain the system that helped make it the richest country in the world. This is due to a variety of factors, including inadequate funding, delays in the permitting process, federal agency mismanagement, and even Congress itself.
Currently, of the 242 navigation lock chambers along our rivers, the average age is now more than 60 years old, despite the fact that the design life for these projects is generally only 50 years. A catastrophic failure at a lock on the Ohio River – which is looking more and more like a real possibility – would send shockwaves throughout the U.S. economy and would be felt by every single American. Our nation’s ports have not been adequately maintained, either. For example, despite the fact that the Panama Canal expansion will soon bring massive ships to our ports in the Gulf and on the East Coast, the federal government has only dredged one harbor to the necessary depth. This means that ships will either be traveling under-loaded – or even worse – bypassing America altogether.
The good news is that Congress can take action now to end this culture of neglect and prevent the problems of the future. As Chairman of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, I have already begun working with my fellow colleagues and stakeholders to develop a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) to address the most significant problems through common-sense reforms.