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Importance of Rivers Touted at Pittsburgh Waterways Symposium

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett addressed the final day of the 2011 Fall Waters Symposium, an annual event that focuses on the nation's working waterways. He said rivers are an essential part of the nation's economy and transportation system.

"If our country is a living body, these rivers are its veins. They connect our cities through industry, that's why we need to maintain them, to develop them, to recognize them as the lifeline they are," said Corbett.

But rivers often fall to the bottom of the priority list for transportation projects. The symposium focused on rivers being the fourth "r" in the transportation hierarchy, behind runways, roads, and rail.

But they still serve a vital purpose, with some calling them highways of commerce.

"They carry more than 60% of our grain for export, 20% of our electric power generation for turning on our light switch in the morning and keeping our homes heated in the winter," said Debra Colbert, director of communications of Waterways Council, Inc., a national public policy organization advocating a national system of ports and inland waterways.

The lock and dam infrastructure, though, was built in the 1930s and designed for only a 50-year life.

"Many of them in different parts of the system, some right here in the Pittsburgh area, are 75-plus years old, and so things are wearing out and they need recapitalization of funding so we can make sure we can grow our exports," said Colbert.

Colbert says river infrastructure is often overlooked in favor of roads, runways, and rail. But, with the conversation continuing, the push for more federal funds is also ongoing.

"It's always an education process within Washington, D.C. to talk to the legislators and regulators about this," said Colbert.

In the 12-county area around Pittsburgh, some 45,000 jobs are estimated to be directly impacted by inland shipping, and up to 217,000 jobs are indirectly related. The annual Waterways conference was held in Pittsburgh this week, and wrapped up on Friday.