New locks would 'help families and farmers'
Thursday, May 12, 2005
By Martin Ross
Time is money for farmers relying on an outdated river system and waiting for lawmakers to correct the situation, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama argued last week in Peoria.
With the Senate expected to debate the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) within the next few weeks, Congress is "one big step closer to building an Illinois lock and dam system for the 21st Century," the Chicago Democrat told reporters gathered on the Peoria riverfront.
Obama urged ag/business interests "to help families and farmers in Illinois" by promoting WRDA proposals to build seven new locks on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.
Obama and Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, support a proposed $1.8 billion for construction of modern 1,200-foot locks and $1.6 billion in river ecosystem restoration.
Delays in moving 1,200-foot barge tows through older 600-foot locks waste time and money "for farmers who count on the sale of crops to support their families," Obama said. Noting Brazil has invested heavily in infrastructure "to speed farm exports to key markets," he stressed U.S. locks built in the 1930s "can't meet 21st Century market demands."
In fact, Illinois Farm Bureau President Philip Nelson warned that amid Mississippi-Illinois lock deterioration, "we're one emergency shutdown away from economically shutting down the whole river transportation system."
Beyond helping move more than 640 million bushels of corn into export channels, the "new locks are good for jobs" as well as for the environment, Nelson argued.
Each freight barge tow replaces 870 semi-tractor trailer on Midwest roads, reducing air pollution and traffic congestion, Nelson said.
"This means more crops going through faster, and more exports for farmers across Illinois who deserve to see their hard work pay off," Obama said.
"It also means the creation of 6,000 new jobs over the next 15 years, so we can put more people back to work right here in Peoria.
"And to make sure we protect our environment, the funding for ecosystem restoration will keep the land around these mighty rivers clean and beautiful."
Obama said ecosystem proposals have been key to calming legislative and environmental critics of new locks. Those provisions constitute "not simply beautification projects," but also would play a role in flood control and the integrity of the navigation channel, and "I would resist taking the environmental components out," he said.
Durbin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, sees "a tough year" ahead for proposed lock spending, given current budget/deficit concerns. But "the locks and dams are critical for agriculture in the Midwest, and for a lot of other industries," he told FarmWeek last week in Normal.
Obama emphasized "some of the most powerful chairmen of (Senate) committees happen to be from the Midwest," including Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee Chairman Kit Bond (R-Mo.), sponsor of WRDA lock provisions.
"I see this laying the groundwork for our long-term competitiveness," he said. "This is the same kind of project we should be thinking about when it comes to education or health care. It's creating an infrastructure that is going to serve not just current voters but also future voters," said the senator.