Moving Trade Along


But who has the time?

At least we corn and soybean farmers have the Mississippi River, and that may be the next best thing.

The United States exports about 2 billion bushels of corn each year, and something like 1.3 billion of those bushels–65 percent–enter the global marketplace by floating down the mighty Mississippi.

Transporting our farm products by water is incredibly cost-effective. It’s much preferable to road or rail (or walking, since we’re on the subject). This is one of the reasons why our farmers are so competitive in the international economy.

But we can do better. Right now, our ability to export what we grow is hampered by an antiquated system of a dozen locks on the Mississippi River and the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi. A couple of generations ago, these locks were engineering masterpieces that helped steamboats propel our economy. Today, they’re outdated and need to be replaced by 21st-century versions that will allow our modern ships to help us feed the world with maximum efficiency.

Here’s the problem: Under ideal conditions, it can take a barge up to two hours to pass through a lock as it heads downstream. When there’s a bottleneck, barges can wait days before they get the green light to move forward. If you think traffic congestion is bad during rush hour in some of our major cities, you need to look at these chokepoints on the river.

Our system of locks came under enormous stress last year, when corn growers produced a record crop. This year, signs suggest that we’re going to be even more productive, which means even greater levels of usage. What’s more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that corn exports will grow by 44 percent over the next decade.

That’s fantastic news, especially at a time when our country is suffering from a huge trade deficit. But we need to make sure our infrastructure keeps pace with our exports, or we won’t take full advantage of the unique opportunities being presented to us.

Time is money, and every delay at one of these locks costs farmers cash. This year, I stand to lose about a nickel per bushel in delays attributable to the locks. That may not sound like a fortune, but it adds up quickly. And it cuts both ways. Delays affect upstream traffic as well, in barges loaded with fertilizer or diesel fuel–and these delays add further costs, which of course are borne by farmers (directly) and consumers (indirectly).

There is a solution. Congress is currently considering the Water Resources Development Act, and it may take action on this legislation before the year is over. Upgrading the locks should be a fundamental part of the plan.

The federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars studying the problem of the locks on the Mississippi River. The consensus is that improving the locks, which includes doubling their size, would cost about $2.3 billion over 15 years of construction.

Half this sum would come from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which was established in 1986 and has been funded by a special tax on barge fuel. I’ve been paying this tax for nearly two decades and I have yet to see the locks made better. It’s about time the government decided to use the trust-fund money to give us back something equivalent to what we’ve put in.

The other half will have to come from the public, which enjoys the benefits of the Mississippi and its locks without having to pay any of the costs. Recreational boaters, for instance, make extensive use of the locks–but they aren’t charged for this service. Besides, there’s a long tradition of the public bearing the costs of infrastructure. That’s why we don’t pay tolls to drive on Interstate highways.

The only meaningful opposition to the plan comes from activist groups that are hostile to river commerce, probably because they don’t realize (or don’t care) how so many livelihoods depend on it. Despite what they claim, the locks can be expanded without any adverse impact on the environment. Also, we need to guard against their backdoor tactics and insist that the final bill place no new encumbrances on the Army Corps of Engineers to do its job.

Now it’s time for Congress to walk the walk–and I definitely don’t mean that in the Steven Wright sense of the term.

Tim Burrack

Tim Burrack

Tim grows corn, seed corn, soybeans and produces pork. Has been very involved with Mississippi River lock improvements and has traveled to Brazil to research their river, rail and road infrastructure changes. Tim volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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