WASHINGTON — The National Grain and Feed Association on Nov. 5 joined with agricultural producer and barge interests in urging the U.S. Congress to expeditiously override President Bush’s veto of the Water Resources Development Act — legislation that would authorize funds for construction and renovation of dilapidated locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway.
The N.G.F.A. called the president’s Nov. 2 veto "regrettable" and said a prompt override by Congress is essential to end more than 12 years of delays that have forestalled improvements to the nation’s major inland waterways artery that is vital to U.S. agriculture. It currently appears that the House will attempt to override the veto as early as Nov. 6, with the Senate following suit shortly thereafter. The House previously approved the bill by a 381 to 40 margin, while the Senate did so by an 81 to 12 vote. Both margins far exceed the two-thirds vote required to override a veto.
"This project is absolutely essential to the long-term growth and economic success of U.S. agriculture, as well as to maintain U.S. export competitiveness," said Kendell W. Keith, president of the N.G.F.A. "If U.S. transportation capacity cannot be efficiently expanded through improved waterways, increasing congestion on the highway and rail network will hamper overall U.S. economic growth. Further, an efficient inland waterways system leads to reduced costs throughout the entire transportation network, providing benefits up and down the supply chain."
The W.R.D.A. vetoed by President Bush includes authorization to spend $3.6 billion to construct seven new 1,200-foot locks at locks 20, 21, 22, 24 and 25 on the Upper Mississippi river, as well as at the LaGrange and Peoria locks on the Illinois Waterway. It also would authorize switchboats to expedite barge movements at Locks 20 through 24. The funds also would be used for ecosystem restoration on the Upper Mississippi-Illinois Waterway.
Most of the existing locks on the Upper Mississippi-Illinois Waterway, built in the 1930s and 1940s, have long since passed their life expectancy and are subject to periodic breakdowns and costly maintenance. They also are obsolete because they are too short to handle modern barge tows, which require 1,200-foot locks. The existing 600-foot locks require modern barge tows to be physically divided and moved through the locks in two separate shipments.
President Bush said he vetoed the bill because of what he termed its "excessive" spending and for failing to set water project priorities. But the N.G.F.A. noted that Congress still would need to approve additional legislation to appropriate funds for each of the specific waterway projects contained in the waterways legislation, including the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway locks. That process, the N.G.F.A. noted, provides lawmakers and the administration with ample opportunity to set specific waterway project priorities and discern which ones merit federal funding.
The N.G.F.A. also noted that current law requires that 50% of the cost of waterway projects be funded by 20-cent-per-gallon fuel taxes levied on commercial barge users, including the grain, feed and fertilizer sectors. The N.G.F.A. also said that while commercial users operating on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway have paid more than 40% of total barge fuel taxes, they have received less than 15% of the benefits through investments in infrastructure improvements.
The N.G.F.A. noted that approximately one-third of U.S. agricultural production is exported, and 60% of those exports — including more than 2.5 billion bus of corn and soybeans — typically transit the Upper Mississippi-Illinois river system each year. Barges also transport significant quantities of fertilizer and other agricultural farm input supplies to grain-growing regions.
Mr. Keith said U.S. grain and oilseed exports may fluctuate from year to year, influenced by such factors as world supply-demand and U.S. crop conditions, the comparative strength of the U.S. dollar compared to foreign currencies, and ocean freight rates. But he noted that none of these factors is permanent.
"U.S. grain and oilseed exports this year are booming, exceeding projections," Mr. Keith said. "There is no question that the overall trend is for continued liberalization of international trade through multilateral and regional trade agreements, as well as increased purchasing power of foreign customers of U.S. agricultural products. Just as certain is that if the United States fails to modernize its inland waterways system, U.S. agricultural exports will be further undermined as competing foreign countries continue to invest in their own transportation infrastructures."