By Tom Webb

A pair of U.S. senators, representing opposite ends of the Mississippi River, on Thursday urged Congress to act to upgrade the aging locks and barge channels that serve the nation's heartland.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., warned in St. Paul that without congressional action, more and more infrastructure breakdowns will pose a threat to the Midwest farmers, manufacturers and others who rely on moving goods up and down the Mississippi.

Said Klobuchar: "If you don't have the infrastructure to get it where it needs to be, it doesn't matter how much you make."

In mid-May, the Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act, but passage in the House seems less certain. So the senators teamed up at a riverside news conference Thursday, hoping to nudge reluctant lawmakers along.

Landrieu cited the increasing number of problems and delays in the lock-and-dam navigation system. As the system deteriorates, shippers "literally cannot get their products to market without this river being open, dredged and ready."

Water projects and lock-and-dam upgrades are always controversial in Washington, with environmental groups, taxpayer watchdogs, agribusinesses and others battling over the wisdom and cost of such projects. This time around, pledges not to raise taxes threaten such projects.

The WRDA bill would increase the levy on shippers to help pay for the upgrades -- an approach that enjoys the industry's support.

"As an industry, we understand and appreciate we need to pay more" in order to upgrade the river shipping system, said Lee Nelson, president of Upper River Services, a St. Paul company that operates a barge and towboat repair and maintenance facility on the Mississippi River.

Klobuchar said the task in the House will be "to get around the people who have signed the pledges," because the industry thinks it's a solution to a thorny problem.

Shipping on the Upper Mississippi is heavily weighted toward agricultural commodities like corn, soybeans and fertilizer, although barges also move cement, salt, steel and other bulk commodities.

The rise of the ethanol industry has led to fewer barges loaded with corn for transport to terminal ports in the Gulf of Mexico. But some items are growing more popular on the river, such as steel being shipped south for recycling.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman called the river shipping system "an absolutely critical part of our economy" in St. Paul. He was joined by officials from agribusiness giants CHS Inc. and Cargill.