Grain transportation involves much more than moving commodities from Point A to Point B. To make efficient transportation happen, many logistical intricacies must synchronize; however, it’s no secret that the foundation of our nation’s transportation delivery system — our infrastructure — is in need of special attention. As international markets catch up with our ability to handle and export grain, capital investments need to be made to keep the United States competitive in the global marketplace in order to sustain the health of our economy in the future.
In 2009, agriculture and its related industries contributed $540 billion (4.5%) to the U.S. GDP; and, according to the USDA, the total agriculture exports averaged $82.2 billion from 2005 to 2008. In 2009, ag exports were forecasted to exceed imports by $15 billion.
“As the population grows, I have no doubt farmers will produce the crops to feed the world,” says Cornel Martin, president and CEO, Waterways Council, Inc. “However, if we don’t pay attention to our transportation infrastructure, the heartland of America will not be able to move the grain to feed the world. It’s important that we focus on this now so we’re ready for the demand of the future.”
Historically, the United States has boasted the most efficient transportation system in the world, but can we maintain this advantage moving forward?
Ken Eriksen, senior vice president, informa economics, says: “We have had this power, but we also have looming pockets of problems. There are challenges we face as competition is stepping up to fill that gap, and our competitive advantage is eroding. As a nation, we must decide if we’re going to stay ahead, keep pace or fall behind.”
Every level of government sees the urgency for this investment in capacity and a better cooperation between the modes, says Ken Casavant, director of the Transportation Research Group (TRG) at Washington State University.
“Everyone agrees progress needs to be made in the advancement of waterways and rural ground transportation,” Casavant reports. “And the common theme in every discussion of the topic is ‘Where the hell does the money come from?’ ”
While politicians ponder this question, industry stakeholders are making strides toward improving the mechanisms which fund long-term infrastructure investments for the nation’s waterways.
The contribution of waterways
Waterway transportation is a lot more important to agriculture than a lot of people give it credit for, says Bruce Lambert, executive director, Institute for Trade and Transportation Studies. Barges are the most fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly way to move grain across our country; and it’s long been recognized the majority of our New-Deal-era locks and dams are in various states of disrepair.
The fear, of course, is that a catastrophic failure would shut down a key waterway for an extended period of time. Such a delay — and the related costs of unloading product and securing alternative modes of transportation for such a detour — would destroy the cost-efficiency profitable grain trade relies upon.
“The rivers are a busy interstate highway system,” Steve Jones, navigation manager, Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley division, explains. “A 30-day closure on the upper Mississippi would have a massive impact on the [grain] industry.”
One of the corps’ high priorities is modernizing the single-chambered locks and dams of the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Modernization would entail the construction of new, larger lock chambers adjacent to the existing structure to increase capacity. As it stands, tows have to break in half to get through the outdated 600-foot-locks — an inefficiency in itself. New locks are 1,200 feet long, allowing a whole tow to go through at one time. The new lock chambers will allow the old 600-foot chambers to serve as auxiliary chambers; thereby providing an alternate route should the main chamber fail. Without these new structures, a lock failure at any site would cease movement throughout the system.