Rehab our inland waterways

They are vital to the economy of Pennsylvania and the nation

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Strengthening our inland waterway transportation system would make our nation more competitive in the global marketplace, grow our economy and create jobs.

Western Pennsylvania is fortunate to have so many beautiful rivers. Rivers such as the Allegheny, Ohio and Conemaugh crisscross Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district, which I represent.

These inland waterways, which were our nation's first interstate highway system, have for 200 years been important thoroughfares of commerce. They bring producers and consumers together and connect much of America to the oceans and the rest of the global marketplace.

Today, tremendous amounts of commerce travel up and down these rivers. I recently stopped by the Montgomery Lock & Dam in Beaver County. As I looked out at the Ohio River, I could see barge after barge carrying raw materials to manufacturers and finished products to market.

Use electricity? Forty percent of our electricity in Pennsylvania comes from coal. If you take Route 65 from Beaver to Ambridge or Pittsburgh, you might notice all of the barges out on the Ohio River. A lot of the coal that powers our communities is transported by barge on our inland waterways.

Drive a car? There is a good chance that the fuel at your local gas station arrived there by way of our nation's inland waterways. In fact, over $18 billion in petroleum products and crude petroleum pass through our commonwealth's waterways and ports each year.

Our inland waterways, including the Port of Pittsburgh and the Ohio River, have a tremendous economic impact on southwestern Pennsylvania. Over $43 billion in manufactured goods are shipped to and from Pennsylvania through our waterways and ports. These waterways support more than 3,400 jobs in the 12th congressional district alone and almost 15,000 jobs across the region. Waterways and ports support almost 40,000 jobs across Pennsylvania.

All of our locks and dams must be kept in good repair so that commerce can continue to flow. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains and operates inland waterways and ports, but the process to improve them has been tied up in red tape. Feasibility studies that used to take three to five years can now take upwards of 10. This needlessly delays repair projects and prevents new ones from getting started.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act would reform the approval process so that we could better maintain our water infrastructure, including the 17 locks in Western Pennsylvania that are in need of repair. The act, sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster of Hollidaysburg and which I co-sponsored, passed the House with a bipartisan majority of 417-3 on Oct. 23. The following week the Senate approved a significantly different version and requested a conference committee to resolve the differences. This process hopefully will soon result in legislation that both houses can approve.

WRRDA would reduce the length of time it takes to approve projects by limiting feasibility studies to three years, streamlining environmental reviews, eliminating duplicative analyses and expediting the permitting process. It would establish a more transparent process, with greater congressional oversight to review and prioritize water infrastructure projects.

Yes, we are working with tight budgets in Washington, D.C. But there are things on which the federal government should spend money. Strengthening our nation's locks, dams, ports and waterways is one of them.

The federal government should also be a good steward of hard-earned taxpayer dollars. WRRDA would promote fiscal responsibility by shifting billions in funding for old and inactive projects to new projects and by sunsetting new projects after seven years if construction has not begun. In addition, it would require the Army Corps to sell properties that it does not require to fulfill its mission.

These reforms and others included in the WRRDA would help the federal government more efficiently and effectively maintain and improve our inland waterway transportation system. Doing so would help our economy grow and create jobs.

Keith Rothfus is a Republican congressman from Sewickley.

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[This story reflects the following correction to the original version: Perspectives. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act to improve inland waterways was passed by the U.S. House Oct. 23. The following week the Senate approved a significantly different version and requested a conference committee to resolve the differences. In an op-ed piece by Rep. Keith Rothfus published Monday in which he urged action on the issue, the status of the legislation was mischaracterized due to an editing error.]


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