The two houses of Congress passed two versions of a bill aimed at refurbishing the nation’s aging water transportation infrastructure before adjourning for pre-election campaigning. An industry expert told DTN chances are good the bills will be reconciled and passed as one in the lame duck session following the election, but that doesn’t guarantee adequate funding for the projects.
On September 28, the House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 by a vote of 399 to 25. The Senate passed its version of WRDA on Sept. 15 by a vote of 95 to 3. The bill authorizes $9 billion dollars for inland navigation and water projects administered by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“By the end of that week, Congress adjourned to enable members to return to their districts and states to campaign prior to the November 8 election,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition (STC), in an email to DTN. “The House and the Senate now need to meet via conference committee to reconcile the differences between the two versions. It is expected that Congress will entertain and pass the conference report during a lame duck session following the November election.”
Steenhoek added, “We are appreciative that Congress provided such a strong expression of support for helping to address the profound needs of our nation’s inland waterway system. Given the increased acrimony in Washington, D.C., exacerbated by the impending election, there has been widespread pessimism that Congress this year would achieve a robust portfolio of work important to the American people. However, it has been hopeful that the passage of a WRDA bill would be one area that could achieve bipartisan support.
“There are two legislative steps for Congress to address inland waterway issues: 1) The authorization step, which a WRDA bill is, and 2) The appropriations step, which is under the jurisdiction of the respective appropriations committees in the House and Senate,” said Steenhoek.
“The authorization step essentially provides the strategy or road map for action. A list of prioritized projects and initiatives will commonly be included in a WRDA bill,” he explained. “The appropriations step provides the funding to implement the strategy or road map. Both steps are essential. The tradition breakdown in Congress has been the appropriations process not providing sufficient funding to fulfill that objectives prescribed in the WRDA bill. As a result, the passage of a WRDA bill is appreciated, but it is not the finish line. We need to continue to advocate for this issue throughout the appropriations process.”
INLAND WATERWAY VITAL TO AG
The Mississippi River watershed is the fourth largest in the world, extending from the Allegheny Mountains in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west. The watershed includes all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian Provinces. The watershed measures approximately 1.2 million square miles, covering about 40% of the lower 48 states, according to the U.S. National Park Service. As the river makes its 2,350-mile journey south to the Gulf of Mexico, it is joined by hundreds of tributaries, including the Ohio and Missouri Rivers.
Agriculture has been the dominant land use for nearly 200 years in the Mississippi basin, and has altered the hydrologic cycle and energy budget of the region, states the NPS on their website. The agricultural products and the huge agribusiness industry that has developed in the basin produce 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports, 78% of the world’s exports in feed grains and soybeans, and most of the livestock and hogs produced nationally. Sixty percent of all grain exported from the U.S. is shipped on the Mississippi River through the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana.
In measure of tonnage, the largest port district in the world is located along the Mississippi River delta in Louisiana. The Port of South Louisiana is one of the largest volume ports in the United States. Representing 500 million tons of shipped goods per year (according to the Port of New Orleans), the Mississippi River barge port system is significant to national trade.
Since most of the corn and soybean crops in the U.S. are grown close to the Mississippi River system, shipping by barge is the most economical method. One barge can carry the same quantity as 15 jumbo hopper cars or 58 large semi-trucks. A typical tow in perfect conditions on the river is 15 barges, which carries the same quantity as 2.25, 100-car trains and 870 large semi-trucks. Since freight costs are the main component in figuring cash basis, cheaper freight can in turn create stronger cash basis. The USDA October 6 Grain Transportation Report showed the cost of shipping a unit train (25/26 cars) of soybeans from Minneapolis, Minneapolis, to the Gulf was $1.07 per bushel. The cost of shipping a barge of soybeans from Twin Cities District to the Gulf was 88 cents per bushel. A 26-car train can hold approximately 88,000 bushels of soybeans while one barge can hold approximately 55,000 bushels. Remember that one tow normally moves 15 barges at one time in peak season.
As the aging lock and dams continue to deteriorate, especially when damaged by floods, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to make costly repairs and some cases, put a Band-Aid on the damaged locks. The USACE has said that it is “unable to adequately fund maintenance activities to ensure the navigation system operates at an acceptable level of performance.” There are 28 locks and dams on the Mississippi River; there were 29. but the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was closed in 2014. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 forced it to close because of the invasive carp using the lock and dam to get further upriver and into northern lakes, according to the reason stated in the bill.
“The future of the U.S. Waterways depends on better funding from the government before it’s too late to repair the aging locks and dams,” said Steenhoek. The STC is pleased that Congress appears to be getting back to passing a WRDA bill every two years. “One of the challenges confronting the inland waterway system and barge transportation is that it is largely out of sight and therefore out of mind for many policymakers. A high percentage of lawmakers do not represent districts that witness barge transportation. As a result, the more time that elapses between one WRDA bill and the next, the more Herculean it becomes to educate and persuade lawmakers to devote attention to the needs of the inland waterway system.”