A $68 million project to replace and repair navigation lock gates on the Columbia and Snake rivers exemplifies the need to invest in America’s infrastructure despite some calls for steep cuts in federal spending, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said Tuesday.
Murray, D-Wash., spoke to more than 60 people who gathered in Vancouver to celebrate the completion of a project that installed three new lock gates and made other repairs on the Columbia and Snake rivers — crucial transportation links for the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Some 40 million tons of cargo are transported along the river system annually, supporting 40,000 jobs.
Murray, who chairs the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, played a key role in securing funding for the Columbia and Snake rivers project.
The senator and her audience took shelter from the rain underneath a large white tent at Vancouver Landing, just west of the Red Lion Inn at the Quay.
Standing at a lectern, Murray said it’s important to reduce the national debt. However, she said, it’s “shortsighted” to cut or eliminate programs that make investments in the nation’s economy, including its network of roads and waterways.
If the U.S. fails to make important investments in projects such as the upgrades to the Columbia and Snake rivers, she said, then the country risks falling behind global competitors. It’s “not just about spending,” Murray said. “It’s about investing.”
Tuesday’s event — held by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, a nonprofit group that lobbies for regional economic development — rolled out little more than two months after the planned 15-week closure of the Columbia and Snake rivers.
During the closure, from Dec. 10, 2010, to March 25, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replaced downstream gates at The Dalles, John Day and Lower Monumental navigation locks. The Corps of Engineers, which maintains the eight locks and dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, also performed additional repairs on the remaining five locks on the system.
Aimed at making it easier for vessels to ply waterways, locks are devices that raise or lower ships depending on different water levels.
Two representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers spoke during Tuesday’s event. They noted that the Columbia Snake River System project was designed and built by American companies, including Dix Corporation of Spokane and Thompson Metal Fab of Vancouver.
“We had the A-team,” said Col. Steven Miles, the Portland District commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. He described the project as “a lot of steel holding back a lot of water for the nation.”
Lt. Col. David Caldwell, the Walla Walla district commander of the Army Corps, said the project went smoothly. “We had zero accidents as we did these projects,” he said.
The improvements to the Columbia and Snake rivers’ locks add to the overall effort to boost commerce along the system, which is the top U.S. gateway for wheat and barley exports. In October 2010, regional leaders touted completion of the $190 million Columbia River channel-deepening project. That project, also supported by Murray, deepened the navigation channel from 40 feet to 43 feet to enable deeper-draft vessels to reach upriver ports.
Strengthening the Columbia and Snake rivers helps hundreds of businesses and positions the region for economic growth, Murray said. “We can’t afford to let the system fall into disrepair,” she added.