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A publication of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association.
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April 2017 
U.S. advantage dwindles

     One of President Donald Trump’s campaign promises was a massive infrastructure initiative within the first 100 days.  But that aggressive schedule has hit some congressional bumps.
      The Hill quotes Rep. Sam Graves, chair of the House Transportation Subcommittee predicting that the program will be rolled out, “this summer.”  Rep. Bill Schuster, chair of the full House Transportation Committee, says Congress is now exploring ways to pay for the $1 trillion package and then will finalize details in the second 100 days.
     Congress doesn’t have to look far to get a sense of the desperate need for infrastructure investment in the country’s inland waterways.
Bloomberg News recently called maintenance on the Mississippi River system, “inadequate” and a, “threat to trade.” 
     Sean Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition told Bloomberg that if confidence in the river’s ability declines, countries that are likely to take their business elsewhere include, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Columbia.  The Coalition represents port operators, inland shipping companies and ag related businesses.
     And Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition says a checkoff-funded study done awhile ago for that group shows that competitor countries continue to improve their water transportation and reduce the economic advantage America’s inland waterways give growers.
     “Transportation infrastructure gives U.S. farmers a significant competitive advantage over our international competitors, but without investment, we won’t enjoy that advantage for long,” says Mark Seib, a Poseyville, Ind., farmer and director on the United Soybean Board. “We need to focus on investing in our infrastructure  now to position ourselves for a competitive and profitable future.”
     The study is called, “Farm to Market-A Soybean’s Journey.   A chart generated by that study (below) shows the shrinking competitive advantage U.S. inland waterways give farmers.
 
 
From the Executive Director . . .
 

How does this impact the price of tomatoes?  
     The Lower Minnesota River Watershed District has a bill before the state Senate which, if passed in its current form, would authorize state financial assistance in managing a District-owned site for dredge material removed by the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) and private dredgers.
 
    For the occasional readers of Waterways, the District was established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1960 to serve as the local sponsor to the COE to provide placements sites for material dredged from the river to maintain a congressionally authorized 9-foot navigation channel.  The District owns and operates the sites which facilitate temporary storage of sediment dredged by COE while the material dries out prior to being taken offsite for beneficial use or landfill.
 
Financing the nine-foot channel fund
     According to District documents, it subsequently entered into agreements with three grain terminals to provide an area at the site for storage of material dredged from their private slips with each slip owner paying the District a fee for temporary storage.  (The Corps is authorized to dredge only congressionally authorized navigation channels, not private slips). The District’s 9-foot channel fund was initially established by special assessment and supplemented by ad valorem tax.  As a matter of interest, one of the three grain terminals reported that since its opening in 1982, it shipped 31,126 barges of grain via the river.  More on that later. 
     Now faced with a depleted 9-foot channel fund the District needs to use other funding mechanisms to restore it.  There is a difference of opinion among District Managers as to which mechanism should be used to restore the fund: An ad valorem tax - assesses all properties in the District or a special assessment - assesses only the benefitted users.  Depending upon who defines the term, ”benefitted users” can mean anything from the three local grain terminals, up to and including international markets or local, state, and national governments as well; oh, and let’s not forget recreational vessels.  Pick one that fits your agenda.
 
Senate recognizes Minnesota’s gain
     Earlier this legislative year, the District introduced a bill seeking State funding to maintain the navigation channel.  The major issue before the District, and ultimately Minnesota legislature, is the definition of that illusive term:  benefitted users.
     To its credit, in addition to providing $240,000 per year for the next two years, the Senate bill (S.F. 701) specifically recognizes that such funding is intended to defray annual operating and maintenance costs of dredge spoil sites so that citizens of the District “are not solely obligated to pay the costs [relating to commercial and recreational navigation] that have state, national, and international benefits to the Minnesota economy”.  Our emphasis added.
     According to the District, the companion House File 821 does not yet specify a dollar amount, but that they are working to get it into the House budget.  If nothing changes from how it currently stands, the issue will be resolved in the conference committee, said the District’s administrator, Linda Loomis.
 
     There is also another bill before Minnesota lawmakers; this one is an effort to improve Minnesota River Basin management.  According to S.F. 1131/H.F. 1498, the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) must coordinate and implement ways to reduce sediment flow, decrease the overall volume of water flow, reduce nutrients levels in the Minnesota River basin and allocate those reductions to the 13 major watersheds in the Basin by the end of calendar year 2019.
This legislation provides that $2,250,000 for each fiscal year 2018 and 2019 are appropriated to BWSR from the clean water fund for implementing this effort; appropriations are available until June 31, 2022. 

The price of tomatoes?
     So, what’s all this got to do with the price of tomatoes, as my portly and stuffy professor of World Literature would say after talking for three-quarters of an hour?  For tomatoes - nothing.  But it does suggest several positive actions that would impact the District.
     For one, S.F. 701 recognizes the shortsightedness of isolating trade borders to the state line.  Remember the reference to a grain terminal that exported over 31 thousand barges of grain by the river over a three decade period?  Visualize a string of barges end to end extending 550 miles, or an assemblage of 100-car unit trains nine times that distance.  As for trucks you don’t want to think about 58 semi trucks for each barge.  That would be well over 1.8 million trucks belching more than 150 percent more nitrogen oxides than barge tow boats.  Think, too, of the economic engine this volume of trade created and the impact it had on the state and national level,
     For another, S.F. 701 specifically addresses the larger state, national and international benefits of water transport to the Minnesota economy.
 
     Finally, authors of S.F. 1131 appears to understand that the Lower Minnesota Watershed District is unrealistically charged with cleaning up the mess of increased water volumes and high nutrients levels seemingly ignored by upriver sources, and that perhaps existing overriding agencies can do more to hold upriver watershed district responsible for what they are sending downstream.
     That is certainly our expectation and wish.
 
 

Still safest, most fuel efficient

     Another recently updated study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute, Center for Ports and Waterways, compares several important aspects of inland river barge transportation to other modes.  Study authors say waterways move bulk cargoes in the safest, most fuel-efficient and environmentally sound way.
     “It is difficult to appreciate the carrying capacity of a barge until one understands how much demand a single barge can meet. For example, a loaded covered hopper barge carrying wheat carries enough product to make almost 2.5 million loaves of bread, or the equivalent of one loaf of bread for almost every person in the state of Kansas.  A loaded tank barge carrying gasoline carries enough product to satisfy the current annual gasoline demand of approximately 2,500 people,” the study says.


Other Items of Interest...

* The National Gallery of Art (NGA) has a new exhibition called, “East of the Mississippi” that features images from the 19th century, including some by Henry Peter Bosse, engineer and draftsman for the Corps of Engineers.  UMWA members remember that those old photos were found aboard the Dredge Thompson when it was retired.  The NGA exhibit can be viewed online.

*   UMWA members scrutinizing the recently released 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2017 Infrastructure Report Card were not surprised by its continuing low grade for the inland waterways.  ASCE says some improvements moved the waterways grade up to D+ but also noted that 49% of vessels using the system experience delays.
     The ASCE study also noted that the Army Corps of Engineers uses a “risk aversion decision making process,” to prioritize projects and referenced last year’s Corp document called, “Technologies to Extend the Life of Existing Infrastructure.”

*  Neopanamax vessel traffic continues to increase on the newly expanded Panama Canal. The 1000th Neopanamax vessel transited the canal from the Pacific to Atlantic side on March 19.  The expanded locks have been operating for just under 9 months.

*  Minnesota and Wisconsin Great Lakes ports are open again and, like the rivers, put a lot of people to work.  The WorkDayMinnesota group notes about 225,000 workers around the Great Lakes, are back on the job with the opening of the commercial shipping season in Duluth/Superior on March 22.

 
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