Put Infrastructure Back on the Front Burner

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Today PACE welcomes a guest blog from our Board Chairman, Cline Jones. Cline is the Executive Director of the Tennessee River Valley Authority and its associated organization, the Tennessee-Cumberland Waterways Council.

As the calendar pages turn, and the end of 2017 draws near, it’s timely to assess progress on one of our country’s most important goals – maintenance and improvement of infrastructure. 

The Tennessee River Valley Association (TRVA) and the Tennessee-Cumberland Waterways Council (TCWC) bring together business and industry, transportation, financial services, education, chambers of commerce, all levels of government and many other stakeholders. Our over-arching mission is to stimulate economic development and employment opportunities, balanced with environmental stewardship. We represent Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and the valley portions of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

One of the primary ways in which we fulfill this mission is by focusing attention on the state of waterways infrastructure. Even for those who live here and enjoy the scenery and recreation our rivers and lakes provide, it can be easy to take the commercial benefits our waterways give for granted. TRVA-TCWC works to ensure that lawmakers and other public policy leaders continue to support our waterways with needed funds, equipment and personnel.

We also remind our various audiences about the nexus between waterways and energy. Coal transport accounts for nearly one-quarter of the traffic on the nation’s waterways. With coal projected to remain a significant baseload fuel source for years to come, adequate transportation along waterways is part of the formula for keeping power prices affordable and coal supplies at plants high enough to assure reliability. TRVA-TCWC’s partnership with PACE helps us highlight the interconnection between the benefits of waterways traffic and the needs of energy consumers. 

TRVA-TCWC members were enthused during the 2016 campaign and early months of the Trump Administration about broad bipartisan agreement on the need to repair America’s infrastructure. We have a long list of priority waterways projects. None are in the “nice to have” category; rather, all are critically important and long overdue. However, as 2018 draws near, we are concerned that other priorities and distractions have pushed infrastructure to the back burner.

Some unfortunate and costly examples from our region and from other critical waterways fuel our concerns. Along the Tennessee Valley, two significant projects (Kentucky and Chickamauga) to improve locks are underway, but need a steady flow of dollars from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. A bit farther afield, Lock 52 on an Illinois segment of the Ohio River actually closed earlier this month because of mechanisms in such bad shape it could not operate in high water.

Without the comprehensive infrastructure legislation and spending package that had Washington, D.C. spun up in the first quarter of 2017, our region and consumers are once again depending on the Administration and Congress to value waterways maintenance and improvement in the annual appropriations process. Unfortunately, the Administration’s FY18 budget cut critical construction dollars by nearly 20 percent, leaving barely enough on the table to make progress at dozens of locks and dams across the nation. Already long timelines for projects stretched out farther and shippers began to plan for costly alternatives, including increased use of commercial trucking.

Now that a federal budget and tax reform talks seem to be shaking loose in D.C., TRVA-TCWC and PACE call on lawmakers and new agency officials to roll up their sleeves and re-engage with infrastructure.

Investing in waterways improvements boosts commerce and returns money to businesses and individuals through lower commodity and energy prices. The region, the nation and consumers throughout can’t afford another year on the back-burner.