Getting the basics right for Louisiana’s economy depends on steady and long-term investment in the roads and bridges and rails that move commerce. One of the basic ways to produce more economic energy in the state and the nation is to keep the Mississippi River open.
That is why we are hopeful the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will see its way clear to invest a lot of taxpayer money — potentially, $300 million — in deepening the lower Mississippi River.
Economic studies commissioned by ports and other interested parties in the state have pushed for a deeper channel.
That is because of the growing size of cargo ships and the widening of the Panama Canal now underway. The Corps studies will look at both economic and environmental impacts, but we cannot see that the latter are that great, given that the river has been a shipping channel of international importance since Thomas Jefferson’s day.
A project to clear silt and deepen the channel to 55 feet between Baton Rouge and the mouth of the river would be an overdue investment in light of the Panama Canal expansion and the growing national importance of exporting. That is a thoroughly bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill, as President Barack Obama has targeted growing exports as a way to produce more American jobs.
The nexus of the river and its access to America’s inland waterways and the Panama project essentially requires the United States to invest more in ports: A 2012 study by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the $14 billion in upgrades then planned for U.S. ports and waterways represented only about half of what was needed to fully reap the benefits of the canal expansion.
Even with a favorable report, work would take years. There is no time to waste, although it must be conceded that the government has shown a lot of capacity to waste time.
The Louisiana delegation in Congress has long been a supporter of the port system and has pushed for expanded dredging and other maintenance of ports. The government has been collecting fees — indirect taxes on shipping — but not spending all the money on its intended purpose.
That abuse has been targeted by Louisiana members, including U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who has led the state delegation’s efforts to put the money collected in the harbor trust fund to use.
That money was paid in good faith and ought to be used — in fact, supplemented with general revenues if need be — because of the national economic importance of Mississippi River commerce. The value of shipping on the river will increase, and the economic vitality of businesses all through the interior of the United States would be improved.
That’s a real payoff and one that is of value far beyond the borders of Louisiana, even if we are the physical home of the river’s mouth.