Natchez, Miss., Mayor Larry L. Brown came to Memphis last week with the kind of prepared remarks that are standard for gatherings where you have more than two mayors of cities.
Natchez, Miss., Mayor Larry L. Brown was one of the more outspoken mayors of Mississippi River towns and cities who were in Memphis last week to talk about commerce on the river.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
The remarks are long on making sure everyone involved gets their name called and the previously agreed-upon talking points get mentioned if there is any time left.
But as Brown stood on the map of Memphis on the Mud Island Riverwalk Thursday, Oct. 17, with a dozen other mayors, he stopped midway through the prepared remarks for the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative.
“I’m going to put this down,” he said of the copy of the remarks.
The initiative is a coalition of mayors of cities and towns along the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to Louisiana. And the mayors are unanimous in their call for a sustained federal commitment to keep the river open for tourism and commerce, including moving more of the containers now traveling by truck and rail onto river barges. But Brown abandoned the carefully crafted texts to get to the point.
“We are not getting a fair shake from Congress,” Brown said. “The river system is the oldest and the most important transportation network in our country. And we are operating it like we did 100 years ago.”
Brown talked specifically about the system of Mississippi River locks and dams north of Memphis and Natchez.
“They are anywhere from 50 to 70 years old. They’ve outlived their useful life,” he said. “They are too narrow. You have to break the tows in half. It costs the tow companies and the farmers that ship those cargoes on the river additional money. … It’d be like a truck wanting to go across the city of Memphis and lighten its loads four or five times back and forth to make the transition to a heavy traffic area. We’ve got to get modern.”
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who is co-chairman of the initiative, said modernization means shipping containers on barges becomes more reliable, which is the chief selling point.
“It’s reliability. It’s not speed when it travels on water,” Wharton said.
He also called on federal officials to create a general river management plan that includes standing plans for keeping the river navigable or at least dealing with floods or droughts before they begin to affect the river.
Wharton has long lamented the impact of sporadic federal dredging of port entries and exits.
“There are appropriations. But the key is they are grossly inadequate,” Wharton said, talking about the city’s experience with Nucor Corp.’s arrival on Presidents Island.
“It wasn’t spelled out clearly who was to dredge the port. We literally had to sort of pass the hat around here locally. We got Fullen Dock to come down and do the dredging,” Wharton said. “That should never, never be. Keep in mind this is a navigable waterway. This is not a local waterway.”
While Wharton was blunt, Brown went blunter.
“Have you ever heard the difference between authorization and appropriation? The Mississippi River gets authorizations day and night, very few appropriations,” Brown said. “The Corps of Engineers, the biggest and best partner on river transportation in the world, is always fighting with one hand tied behind their back. … We have congressmen and senators up and down this river. … We need them here today.”
The two-day gathering touted container-on-barge commitments from Memphis-based Chism-Hardy Investments, a recent entry into the logistics industry, as well as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the Illinois Soybean Association.