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February 2018 
More media pick up on study

    A study sponsored by the Mid-America Freight Coalition has itself become a study on how a relevant story can ripple through today’s media environment.

     Done by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, the study says that a breakdown or closure at any of the over-age locks on the Upper Mississippi River would put even more strain on already crowded roads and railroads between the Twin Cities and St. Louis.
     When it came out last fall, it received a lot of industry coverage, including this newsletter.  But it may have been a feature story in Feedstuffs magazine that caught the attention of other editors, including the LaCrosse Tribune and the Houston Herald.

More trucks and road damage
     Resulting stories highlighted findings that a one-season shutdown at one of the 25 locks on that stretch of the Mississippi would displace between 9.1 million and 12.4 million tons of agricultural goods.  When reduced to truckloads, that figure would be between 367,000 and 489,000 truckloads and cost shippers as much as $283 million.  Resulting road damage would be close to $29 million.

     According to the Center for Freight & Infrastructure Research & Education, rural roads, especially in southern Minnesota, would get most of the pounding.  And UMWA members have pointed out that the study covers only down-bound movements and doesn’t assess the impact of lost barge capacity for vital up-bound commodities.

     The final study report is available online at the MidAmerican Freight Coalition website.

(Above)   Despite a cold winter,  workers have been repairing walls at two Upper Mississippi River locks and dams.  At Lock and Dam 6 near Trempealeau, Wis.,(shown above in summer)  forms were lowered into position and concrete trucks are pumping a grout mixture to reinforce a wall before season open.  Divers guide the mixture into the forms to strengthen the structure.  

     And the downstream guidewall at Lock and Dam 15 near Davenport, Iowa, was partially demolished last fall and is being repaired and replaced after some slight tipping was noticed in the wall which tows use to ease into and out of the locks.

From the Executive Director...

Will proposed infrastructure project lift the American spirit?
     In his recent State of the Union address, Donald Trump promised an infrastructure agenda that would let America “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways across our land”.
     The actual infrastructure program he’s unveiling, alongside his fiscal year 2019 budget request, however, is likely to do nothing of the sort.  Vox, in a recent blog described the President’s agenda as “stingy on grants with no actual source of new money”.
     The President isn’t proposing to increase the gasoline tax that was set at 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993 which inflation and increasing fuel efficiency has consigned to ever smaller amounts over the intervening years.
     Trump, however, isn’t proposing to increase the gasoline tax to generate the $200 billion fund he’s calling for, nor is he proposing to increase any other tax to carry his water.
But, critically, he’s also not saying the $200 billion can be deficit-financed, the way his $1.5 trillion tax cut or $160 billion military spending build-up was.
     He’s just saying the $200 billion should be offset by unspecified spending cuts elsewhere, with budgets that call for all kinds of cuts in spending including core Department of Transportation, Department of Energy and Corps of Engineer (Civil Works), all of which fund infrastructures.

What's in it?
     What the Trump program really is, said Vox, is a $200 billion Federal infrastructure plan consisting of a package of matching funds and grants to states and cities, and federal loan programs that underwrite private financing of profitable infrastructure projects. For example:
  • $100 billion in matching funds to be made available to state and cities;
  • A $50 billion block grant program will be doled out to states based on miles of rural roads and its rural population;
  • A $20 billion fund for “projects that can lift the American spirit” that are next-century-type, instead of just rebuilding what we have currently” (read no rebuilding of Locks and Dams?);
  • Another $20 billion would go to federal load programs that underwrite private financing of profitable infrastructure projects (profitable to whom, investors or the national economy?);
  • Last, there is a $10 billion capital financing program to fund construction of federal office buildings and similar infrastructure for actual government use.
     Trump’s proposal would have every $1 of the above proposed $200 billion Federal investment matched by states and cities kicking in $4 to raise $800 billion to fund his promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure agenda. In general, this is the reverse of the current funding ratio, and would, at least implicitly, make local governments and/or the private investment industry supreme over federally funded infrastructures.  What may be even more troubling with private investments is the specter of lockage fees to provide a profit for the investors.  An unreasonable fee would almost certainly result in an untended modal diversion and loss of domestic and international markets resulting in a national economic loss.

Disclaimer:  Thoughts and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and not necessarily those of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association or its members.

Other Items of Interest...

 *  Stories in Waterways and other publications frequently reference Federal Trust Funds, such as the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.  If you’d like a brief reminder of how these funds came to be and their intended purpose, the Tax Foundation's Erica York has published a short, very readable summary of the various funds and their intended purpose.  And she talks about some of the obstacles to their intended uses.

*  It was no surprise that water transportation related projects ranked high on the Soy Transportation Coalition’s (STC) “Top 10 Most Wanted List” of infrastructure priorities.  Among the priorities is, “Maintenance and rehabilitation of locks and dams to significantly reduce the ”potential for unexpected, widespread, and prolonged failure.”

 *  Many of the thousands of visitors to downtown during the Winter Carnival took the opportunity to visit the St.  Paul Port Authority’s latest project, the Treasure Island Center at the corner of Wabasha and Sixth Streets.  Now a kind of permanent Ice Palace, the Center joins other projects such as CHS Field in bringing new life to downtown.

*   Wired, the tech magazine, is running a story about something it says even a super computer can’t do - accurately model the Mississippi River.  The story details the $18 million model of the Mississippi recently completed and being used by Louisiana to demonstrate river dynamics.  Based on mapping data, the 10,800 square-foot model was made of high density foam and shaped to a quarter-millimeter tolerance.

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