As part of a hearing examining the reliability of America’s aging waterways infrastructure and how it impacts economic competitiveness, Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC), testified before the House Transportation Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment. Representing the STC, which comprises eleven state soybean boards, the American Soybean Association (ASA) and the United Soybean Board (USB), Steenhoek’s testimony focused on the critical need for investment in the nation’s inland waterways system. Steenhoek cited the prominence of soybeans as an export commodity, the erosion of U.S. competitive advantage in transportation, the need to invest in waterways infrastructure, and just as importantly, the need to improve the way we utilize the funding.

“One of the primary reasons U.S. agriculture is so viable and competitive is our expansive and efficient transportation network,” stated Steenhoek. “However, the Soy Transportation Coalition and many others are gravely concerned with the condition of our inland waterway system.”

Steenhoek pointed to a recent study from USB that projects the impact of potential lock and dam failures on the competitiveness of the soybean industry. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there is an established and growing consensus that such failures are not a matter of if they occur, they are a matter of when. … Our dilapidated lock and dam inventory is increasingly plagued by unscheduled maintenance and mechanical breakdowns. This discourages investment by those who utilize the inland waterway system toward modernization of river terminals, towing equipment, or barge fleets.”

Steenhoek’s testimony supported more investment in inland waterways and also highlighted the importance of better project management on infrastructure improvements. “One of the arguments in our ongoing analysis is examining ‘how money is allocated is just as important as how much money is allocated’,” said Steenhoek. “It is discouraging to observe how many other countries are able to construct their major infrastructure projects much more efficiently than we can. The Panama Canal expansion project is a great example. This $5.25 billion project commenced in 2007 and is scheduled to be completed in late 2014 or early 2015. The expansion project is more imposing and complex than any project we have underway or planned in our inland waterway system, yet all indications are that the project will be completed within budget and only a handful of months behind schedule. Compare this to our Olmsted Lock and Dam project that had an original cost estimate of $775 million and has recently been updated to more than $3 billion with a significant time horizon remaining before it will be completed. When examining the various reasons for our repeated cost overruns and project delays, it quickly becomes evident that a major contributing factor is the piecemeal and unpredictable manner in which we finance these projects.”

Upgrading and modernizing the locks and dams has been a long held priority of ASA. ASA supports increased funding for waterways infrastructure, and to that end, supports the Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency, and Environment Act (WAVE4) recently introduced by Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.). ASA hopes that the WAVE4 bill will initiate the dialogue and spur the action that is urgently needed to avoid catastrophic disruptions to commerce and maintain the economic competitiveness of U.S. exports.

ASA strongly believes that investing in transportation infrastructure is a worthy and justifiable use of federal funds, however, recognizing the budgetary and administrative challenges that exist, ASA stands ready and willing to engage with all stakeholders on innovative ways to meet our infrastructure needs in the most efficient manner possible.