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Politics: Locks a bridge between states, parties for Bustos, Hinson

July 19, 2021

On paper, U.S. Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, and Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, are as different as they are alike.

Bustos announced in recent months that she would not seek re-election, so after 2022, she is on her way out after six terms. Hinson just arrived in January, but is building steam toward her first re-election campaign next year.

Bustos is a Democrat, historically backed and successful amongst unions and the bigger cities in her district, while winning swing voters in more rural counties as well. Hinson was part of the nearly statewide Republican 2020 backlash at the Democratic wave of 2018, and was particularly successful in her district’s rural areas.

But both were formerly journalists before running for elected office, so they have that.

The length of their districts are also both bordered and only separated by the Mississippi River. They also serve together on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.

It is those last two connections the pair celebrated last week with news that their bipartisan request for $22.5 million for lock and dam — as well as environmental Renovations on the Mississippi River had passed the Appropriations Committee as part of the 2021 funding bill for Energy and Water Development. The project would breathe life into the Upper Mississippi River Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which had sat stagnant for years.

The central piece of the NESP program is lengthening locks and dams on the Mississippi River — most of which were constructed after World War II — from 600 feet to 1,200 feet. This would drastically cut down the time towboats are backed up at locks for hours, moving one barge through at a time, when the boats have the capacity to move much more quickly.

“This is absolutely a crucial issue for our river economies,” said Hinson during her weekly call with Iowa press on Friday. “This is about safety, expediency, efficiency and making sure we have viable ways to get our products to market. The entire country is dependent upon the river economy of the Mississippi River. It’s a huge win for the Midwest, specifically Iowa’s farmers and ag producers.”

Most of the first locks and dams to be lengthened are further downstream. But, more efficient movement there allows for the same at Lock and Dam No. 11, at Dubuque, for instance, since boats and barges farther north still have to wait for more sourthern passages to clear before moving.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been working on, and even designing, projects within NESP for more than a decade when funding was cut off in 2010. The program remained unmoved for nearly 10 years until 2018, when a few million made it past the logjam to begin some renewed planning.

This major influx as passed by the House Appropriations Committee could finally see the vision of these projects become a reality.

“Our agricultural producers depend on our inland waterways to deliver tons of goods to market each year, and we must ensure this economic driver remains strong,” Bustos said, in a release. “I’m pleased to announce that more than $22.5 million in funding has been included in this legislative package and this critical project is now one step closer to becoming reality. I look forward to working with my colleagues as we continue to return taxpayer funds to our communities and invest in the economic success of our waterways.”

The House Appropriations Committee is just the first hurdle, of course. Both infrastructure and budgets are expected to have a tough fight through the House or Senate, given the near 50-50 partisan splits in each. Bustos and Hinson, though, hope to work together to get at least this one shared priority through.