Infrastructure Proposals Target Aging US Waterway System
Like clockwork, tow boats slowly push barges on the Illinois river,
carrying everything from salt and petroleum to the top commodities produced in the state, corn and soybeans.
"This is the backbone of our economy. We feed the world from right here."
Tom Heinold oversees the US Army Corps of Engineers facilities along the Illinois river,
including the Starved Rock Lock and Dam near Utica, part of a system throughout the state.
The National Waterways Foundation says moves over 83 million tons of freight annually worth over 13 billion dollars.
Using barges to transport goods on the rivers is efficient and environmentally friendly,
reducing the need to use petroleum-guzzling trucks.
"We can take a thousand tractor-trailer-trucks worth of commodities and put them on a single 15-barge tow."
But the locks which rise and fall to allow barges to navigate at a consistent depth of the river
were built nearly a century ago and are showing their age.
"It is literally in places crumbling.
You can see the concrete right in front of you deteriorating on the vertical walls.
You can see the corner armor rusting, some of its bent. It needs some help."
"They were built with a 50-year design life."
Rodney Weinzierl is a farmer in central Illinois where the waterways are key to getting crops to foreign buyers.
He also serves as the executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association
which advocates for improving the country's inland waterway system.
"Exports are very important to Illinois in the US
and infrastructure is what keeps us competitive with foreign competition."
Weinzierl says since most taxpayers rarely engage with this part of the country's infrastructure,
the waterways often get overlooked.
"So, the public just never really sees it.
So it's much lower on the list of awareness of infrastructure that's really helped make our nation what it is today."
"It needs some help to be reliable and safe."
Previous funding allowed Heinold to oversee some upgrades to the Starved Rock Lock and Dam in 2020
which closed the river to all traffic for several months.
But Heinold says more work is needed up and down the system and Weinzierl understands it isn't cheap.
"Each one of these projects are several hundred million dollars."
Which is why he hopes enough money is allocated to perform upgrades to two locks
along the Illinois river in the greatest need of repair.
"These are long-term investments."
Heinold says he already has a list of what he would do with an infusion of funding.
"It's not that we have it spent before it gets here.
But we know exactly what our capabilities are and where the funding needs to go."
President Biden's infrastructure plan would dedicate 17 billion dollars to improve waterways, ports and airports.
A senate Republican counteroffer also proposes spending billions to upgrade waterways.
Efforts to advance legislation both parties can support continues in Washington.