Rural Infrastructure Needs Examined by House Committee

July 20, 2017

The House Committee on Agriculture held a hearing on July 19 on the state of infrastructure in rural America. The witnesses were:

  • Tom Halverson on behalf of Farm Credit System,
  • Thomas G. Coon on behalf of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU),
  • Rick Calhoun on behalf of the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA),
  • Curtis Wynn on behalf of National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA),
  • Jennifer L. Otwell on behalf of the Rural Broadband Association (NTCA), and
  • Brian E. MacManus on behalf of the National Rural Water Association (NRWA).

In his opening statement, the chairman of the committee, Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX) noted:

“…transportation infrastructure looms larger in rural America. It’s not just roads and bridges, it’s also locks and dams and railways and pipelines that allow our products to travel to the cities where they are needed. “Made in America” depends on the transportation networks we have built in rural America.”

Much of the testimony focused on the issue of rural broadband and many questions were fielded to Jennifer Otwell about the need for continuous funding and the accountability mechanisms to ensure that funds spent actually improve broadband. Many of the committee members expressed their appreciation for the importance of broadband connection as improving technology makes farmers more dependent on connectivity as time goes on.

Other witnesses were asked to expand on the needs of rural programs in areas such as agricultural research and potable water management. Much of the discussion focused on what regulatory hurdles existed and the cost both of investment, as well as the costs of not investing due to lost productivity and innovation in rural areas.

Though much of the hearing did not focus on it, there was limited discussion on rural transportation infrastructure, particularly on inland waterways by witness Rick Calhoun from the National Grain and Feed Association.

Calhoun argued that the distinct advantage in transportation costs that the United States enjoys from its extensive inland waterway system is being eroded as other agricultural producing nations catch up, and our infrastructure falls behind.

Calhoun stressed two priorities for Congress. The first priority is in deepening federal investment in inland water infrastructure such as locks, dams, and ports. To modernize the system, Mr. Calhoun pointed to a backlog of 25 key projects spread across the country that total $8.75 billion. In addition to these projects, Mr. Calhoun also highlighted the $9 billion surplus in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) that requires congressional appropriation to be spent. Mr. Calhoun suggested that this be directed towards port maintenance and dredging. (Ed. Note: For a summary of the difficulties involved in the latter, see this ETW article from September 2016, “What To Do About the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund?”)

The second priority Calhoun emphasized was on supporting the already existing public-private partnership that finances lock and dam renovation. However, Mr. Calhoun urged Congress to look for funding sources beyond the current 50/50 split between general federal revenues and taxes on inland waterway transportation and not consider tolling locks and dams. Mr. Calhoun pointed out that these extra costs would ultimately be passed on to farmers and that the benefits of inland water control, which include recreation, hydropower, and flood control, extend far beyond the commercial shipping industry.

(Ed. Note: The existing federal tax on inland waterway users is a tax on the diesel fuel used to tow barges, which was raised by 45 percent in 2014 through epic legislative shenanigans.)

Even though the benefits of inland waterway management are extensive, constituents and their representatives from areas far away from any major lake or river can have trouble seeing their benefits. (See map.) Chairman Conaway asked Calhoun what could be done to stress the importance of these systems to those who do not see them in their hometown. Mr. Calhoun made the case that inland waterways provide both increased capacity to our transportation system, as well as competition to other modes, such as highway and rail, thus driving down cost everywhere.

Calhoun added further weight to the importance of inland waterway systems by arguing both their critical role in agriculture and the length of time the projects take. Faced with feeding an increasingly large global population, he argued that maintaining our waterways was critical and that because of often multi-decade build times for many dam and lock projects, work should begin as soon as possible.


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