Farmers fear no stimulus cash for Mississippi River

The creaky system of locks and dams on the Mississippi River that moves US$300 billion of goods through the inland U. S. each year may not be eligible for much funding from the U. S. stimulus plan, the head of the National Corn Growers Association said Jan. 27.

Corn growers and other farm groups had been optimistic that funds from President Barack Obama’s $825 billion spending package (all figures US$) could help kick-start an overhaul of the waterway’s Depression-era infrastructure.

Farm groups had hoped the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers could tap into $1.5 billion of stimulus funding to start work on projects already approved by Congress – projects they believe would create about 60,000 jobs in two years.

But the wording of the stimulus text now makes locks and dams spending “a long shot,” said Rick Tolman, chief executive of the 30,000-member corn farmer lobby group.

The text presents a “glitch” for farmers’ hopes because it stipulates projects must already be underway, Tolman said.

The Corps has done the engineering work to expand the waterway’s capacity, but Congress has not yet appropriated funding for the overhaul, he said.

The work had been on the drawing board for 17 years before Congress in 2007 authorized $23 billion in water projects, including seven new locks to speed up barge freight.

The entire locks and dams project would take about 15 years and $2.2 billion to complete, said Rod Snyder, director of public policy for the corn growers.

But the Corps could make significant progress on one or two of the locks in the next two years with an infusion of $1 million to $1.5 million, he said.

The old locks cause bottlenecks, limiting barge shipments down the Mississippi, which handles about 60 per cent of U. S. grain exports worth about $8.5 billion. Pet roleum, chemicals and other bulk goods also move on the system.

“The longer we put this off, the more outdated our river transportation system is going to be,” Snyder said.

The current wording of the stimulus package would allow for the Corps to access $500 million in funding needed for regular operation and maintenance of the system, Snyder said.

Snyder said the corn lobby keeps trying to raise concerns with members of the House and Senate, who were expected to approve the package by mid-February.

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