How to repair locks and dams

Despite tight budgets, deficit reduction pressures, Tea Party activism, and no new-tax pledges, there may be hope for winning federal support for the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

It appears that modernizing roads, bridges, sewers and, yes, locks and dams is gaining traction from both political parties in Washington, D.C. President Obama’s new jobs bill proposes major improvements to infrastructure as a stimulus for jobs, and so far many Democratic and Republican members of Congress seem to think the idea has merit.

“Infrastructure investments is an area where we should work together,” House majority leader Eric Cantor tweeted after Obama’s job speech. That’s quite a conciliatory tone coming from the Republican camp. Even the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are on the same page.

But in an Oct. 3 story in Time, Michael Grunwald writes, “The challenge is to do more with less: to rebuild America in a way that is smarter, greener and cheaper for taxpayers.”

According to Grunwald, this means “focusing on technology and less on asphalt, more on government policies and less on government projects, more on national priorities and less on sprawling pork barrel roads and bridges to nowhere.” Creative solutions, using technology more efficiently, constructing “smart” buildings, and encouraging more private sector involvement are all part of the broader solution.


He writes, for example, that creative alternatives are preferable to continuing to sink millions of dollars into costly lock and dam projects. And he encourages the removal of some 4,000 structurally deficient dams rather than spending an estimated $12 billion to repair them. This would restore rivers, fisheries and offer recreational opportunities. He notes that more than 800 dams have already been dismantled.

“Why build billion-dollar lock expansions to relive barge congestion on the Mississippi River when better scheduling and peak-hour pricing could solve most of the problem at virtually no cost?” he asks.

But better scheduling of traffic through locks, closing down some dams and implementing peak-hour pricing (I assume he’s alluding to some kind of user fee here), won’t solve the problem if the locks don’t work. Relieving congestion is fine, but it just means that fewer barges at a certain time will lock through a crumbling set of locks.

His point is a good one, though, about looking into alternate and creative solutions that don’t involve huge taxpayer investments. That just goes against the grain in Washington. The industry has a recapitalization plan for the waterways that they believe will do the trick. Taxpayer groups and environmentalists don’t like it, Congress isn’t yet sure about it, and the Obama administration is pushing user fees. It’s clear that everyone involved will have to do some give and take. Creative and cooperative solutions will win the day.

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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