Parsons, Kansas —
There’s hardly a school kid who is not familiar with the American folksong, “Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal.” The song went by a number of names including “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal.” If you remember your American history, you’ll recall that the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo, N.Y., was a marvelous engineering feat. Work commenced in 1817, and the 363-mile canal was finished by 1825, just eight years later.
Today, it would take the entire eight years just to study whether the canal should be built, and that is no exaggeration. The canal cost $7 million to construct. Nowadays, the rehabilitation of one lock on an inland waterway can cost $50 million.
Farmers were some of the strongest supporters of building the Erie Canal while President James Monroe opposed it. The New York legislature went ahead without federal support, and costs were recovered from tolls.
Once again, American farmers are strong supporters of the nation’s ports and inland waterways. The American Farm Bureau Federation has made the Water Resources Development Act one of its top legislative priorities. The WRDA of 2013 passed the Senate in May and is expected to be taken up by the House this fall.
The Erie Canal is credited with making New York City the financial capital of America. WRDA will help the United States retain its position as the world’s largest exporter of agricultural products. Without it, we face the prospect of falling behind a big competitor like Brazil that is modernizing its infrastructure.
Most of us are familiar with inadequate roads and crumbling bridges, but we don’t have firsthand knowledge of the condition of ports and waterways, which are just as bad or worse. According to the World Economic Forum, U.S. harbors rank 22nd in the world. Of the top 10 global ports, six are in China.
The Panama Canal is undergoing an expansion that will allow passage of ships with three times more cargo capacity. However, only a few U.S. ports, generally those on the West Coast, are capable of handling the larger ships. Shipping costs for agriculture and other industries could drop significantly if port facilities and harbors are upgraded, to say nothing of the jobs that would be created.
The inland waterway system is in bad shape, too. Many of the locks are well beyond intended lifetimes, and a vast majority of lock chambers are undersized to accommodate typical tows of 15 barges. This makes transport of grain about as slow as the mule-drawn barges that once plied the Erie Canal.
In addition to modernizing and expanding the water transportation network, WRDA includes major policy reforms that cut federal red tape and bureaucracy and streamline the project delivery process. WRDA will not inspire songwriters as the Erie Canal did, but it is critically important for Congress to pass it. £
Stewart Truelsen is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series and is the author of a book marking the American Farm Bureau Federation's 90th anniversary, Forward Farm Bureau.