During this past Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump made the following comment about the need to improve the nation's transportation infrastructure: “We must also rebuild America’s infrastructure. I ask you to pass Sen. John Barrasso’s [R., Wyo.] highway bill to invest in new roads, bridges and tunnels all across our land.”
“In the midst of an evening with obvious acrimony expressed on both sides of the political aisle, the call to prioritize the infrastructure needs of the country provided one of the few moments of consensus,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
Barrasso’s bill authorizes $287 billion from the Highway Trust Fund over five years in investments to maintain and repair America’s roads and bridges.
Steenhoek said the Administration can tangibly demonstrate its commitment to infrastructure over the next several weeks by approving the infrastructure project that will provide arguably the greatest benefit to soybean and corn farmers across the country: deepening the lower Mississippi River to 50 ft. The 256-mile stretch of the lower Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, La., to the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 60% of soybean exports and 59% of corn exports – by far the leading export region for both commodities.
With the passage of the fiscal 2020 appropriation bills (including the Energy & Water Appropriations bill) shortly before Christmas, Congress has provided the needed funding for the project. The key next step is to ensure that funding is directed toward this specific project, Steenhoek said. Within the Administration, R.D. James, the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, and the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) are two critical decision-makers in this process.
“We were pleased that a provision called the Regional Dredge Demonstration Program was included in the final passage of the Energy & Water Appropriations bill given how that will encourage funding for particular deepening projects, including the lower Mississippi River,” Steenhoek said.
However, the final decision on what particular projects are listed on the Army Corps of Engineers’ “Work Plan” is made by the Corps and OMB. “We and others have and continue to reach out to both agencies encouraging their support. The Work Plan will be finalized at the end of February, so we should know pretty soon if the deepening project gets the official green light,” he said.
Steenhoek was on site a couple years ago to attend an event hosted by President Trump along the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio. The theme of the President’s remarks was his strong desire to deliver on infrastructure – roads, bridges, railroads, inland waterways, ports and airports – for the American people.
“While it is one infrastructure project, approving funding for deepening the lower Mississippi River would be a way to demonstrate how that intention expressed a couple years ago is becoming an outcome. We are hopeful this will occur,” Steenhoek said.
Pointing out infrastructure needs may be a “hope springs eternal” comment, but perhaps a silver lining to all of the mutual animosity among our elected leaders is an enhanced prospect for achieving something meaningful on infrastructure, he added.
“The President and members of Congress on both sides would like to prove to the American people they are able to produce more than simple dislike for each other,” Steenhoek noted. “Infrastructure is clearly one of the few issues that can present a bipartisan opportunity to move the needle in a positive direction for this country.”
Steenhoek said he’s hopeful that Congress and the President can, at minimum, pass a highway bill and Water Resources Development Act -- both are due for reauthorization in 2020 -- and that any highway bill will address the needs of not just urban America but also rural America.
After all, infrastructure was the one issue first discussed in 2016 as hope for a bipartisan win -- and that still holds in 2020.