Our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. The good news? We are rebuilding.
When I was chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, I led the charge to enact the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) of 2015, which went a long way in rebuilding our roads. The FAST Act established a new freight program focused on improving the movement of goods by dedicating funding to upgrading freight corridors and associated assets allowing for local businesses and farmers to transport products and materials more efficiently, cutting down costs for them and their consumers.
Now, we have a historic opportunity to target needed investment to improve freight mobility on our nation’s waterways. Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works passed unanimously a new highway reauthorization bill, America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 (ATIA).
As Marine Highways, waterways are a vital and often unseen mode of our nation’s infrastructure that have not been prioritized in previous highway bills. No longer. ATIA includes a provision I authored to amend existing freight programs to allow states new flexibility to modernize waterways that serve as important maritime freight corridors. For the first time, it would also allow states the opportunity to apply for federal discretionary freight grants and direct that funding to Marine Highways — moving tons of cargo from congested roadways to waterways.
I am especially proud of the waterways provisions in ATIA because of what it means for the MKARNS in Oklahoma. The MKARNS, also known as the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, is a key navigation system extending from Tulsa and Muskogee, Oklahoma, through Arkansas, to the Mississippi River.
The MKARNS supports economic activity across a 12-state region, moving 10.9 million tons of commerce worth $3.5 billion annually. It is a vital corridor for agriculture commerce — farmers and ranchers rely on its availability year round to move crops to markets in all seasons and facilitate the movement of fertilizer domestically to prepare for the growing season each year.
Nationwide, the MKARNS is responsible for employing more than 55,000 individuals — jobs related to port operations, shippers on the river, recreation activities and other private sector investment.
This provision is a monumental change, the first of its kind, recognizing the huge role waterways, and the MKARNS, play in our lives.
This bill also continues the fair formula for state apportionment funding I authored in the 2005 highway bill (SAFETEA-LU), so that Oklahoma no longer pays more in gas taxes and other transportation user fees than we would receive each year in federal highway funds. It is the largest investment in our nation’s highway and transportation infrastructure in history, authorizing $287 billion from the Highway Trust Fund over five years. With this money, we can go a long way in maintaining and repairing America’s infrastructure.
Since we need to ensure we are investing these additional resources efficiently, the ATIA includes provisions to improve project delivery by reducing needless and burdensome regulations. These provisions build on the streamlining provisions I negotiated in the FAST Act and would codify President Trump’s Executive Order creating the “One Federal Decision” process. This process would direct that environmental reviews for major transportation projects should be completed in two years, accelerating project delivery and allowing for the review, permitting and approval processes to be conducted more efficiently — saving Oklahoma time and money when starting new infrastructure projects.
While I am proud of the progress we have made to rebuild our infrastructure across the nation in highway bill reauthorizations, there are more opportunities.
The Committee on Environment and Public Works is also working to complete the Water Resources Development Act of 2020, legislation focused on investing in our nation’s inland waterways system and flood protection projects. This year, Oklahoma has been buffeted by severe weather and floods that have damaged homes, businesses, farms and vital infrastructure across the state.
What can we do to make sure folks in my state don’t have to go through the same heartbreak they did this year? We must make it easier to address the aging infrastructure and critical maintenance of our nation’s inland waterways system. This means reducing needless environmental reviews and costly and repetitive federal permitting requirements. We should extend the codification of the “One Federal Decision” process for major surface transportation infrastructure projects to major inland waterway infrastructure projects.
We have gotten a lot done this year to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, but we’re not close to done. Our nation’s roads, bridges and waterways aren’t going away. We need to put in the time and effort it takes to ensure our roads and bridges do their jobs for years to come. Now, let’s get to work.
• Sen. James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.