By TIM ALEXANDER
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — As Congress appears poised to pass the 2013 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), agriculture groups are urging lawmakers to pass the much-delayed lock and dams improvement bill, and lobbying for further legislation to address improvements in the nation’s rail, road and river infrastructure.
“Lower transportation capacity means higher rates, which means lower farmer returns,” said Ken Eriksen, senior vice president of Informa Economics, a Memphis-based research firm that recently concluded a soybean checkoff-funded study of current infrastructure problems that limit efficient and effective movement of ag products. “It’s ultimately the farmer who suffers from these problems.”
Illinois Soybean Assoc. (ISA) Director Ron Kindred said the nation’s crumbling lock, road and rail systems are issues of national importance to agricultural producers, such as his own family.
“We stand to lose millions of dollars if solutions aren’t found,” said Kindred, a soybean farmer from Atlanta, Ill. “Illinois roads are in disrepair. Many bridges are impassable by modern farm equipment because of weight restrictions, and river locks are crumbling after being in service since the Great Depression.”
Ag transportation by river
If passed, WRDA will authorize new initiatives for flood protection, port improvements and upgrades to the nation’s aged locks and dams, primarily on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
A vote on WRDA could come up on the Senate floor any day – it was recently approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee – and action in the House should follow by this summer, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF).
“We have locks and dams that were built back in the days of the Model T,” said Andrew Walmsley, transportation specialist for the AFBF. “We’ve improved our interstates. We need to do the same thing with our waterways.”
Walmsley cited the need to remain competitive with countries like Argentina and Brazil, where ambitious new transportation infrastructure projects, including the expansion of the Panama Canal, will help those nations realize more cost-efficient and effective movements of hundreds of commodities and products.
In an AFBF statement, it pointed out one 15-barge tow can transport the equivalent of more than 1,000 truckloads while offering relief to the nation’s’ congested highway system.
“Construction, dredging and repairs to our locks and dams will help ensure the reliability of the most affordable, energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable mode of transporting agricultural products,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman.
In addition to WRDA, AFBF supports the Reinvesting in Vital Economic Rivers and Waterways (RIVER) Act of 2013 and the Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy Efficiency and Environment (WAVE 4) Act, both of which were recently introduced in the Senate and House, respectively.
Along with locks and dams, the U.S. rail system’s infrastructure needs to be brought up to task, according to the United Soybean Board (USB) in St. Louis. In fact, shippers of soybeans headed from the Midwest bound for export markets could ship more efficiently and cheaply by rail, rather than by truck, if more improvements were made, the USB stated.
“The U.S. soy industry needs a transportation system that runs smoothly in order to move our soybeans to market, and railways are a major part of that,” said Jared Hagert, coordinator of the USB’s international opportunities initiative. “A big key to growing markets, both domestic and international, is being able to deliver our soybeans in an efficient manner.”
The study, Maintaining a Track Record of Success, suggests if rail infrastructure investments are adequate to support growth, a gradual shift from truck to freight rail transportation should occur. This would serve to save fuel and money along the transportation chain and reduce traffic congestion and highway repairs.
And by road
Eriksen’s team discovered that conditions of existing roads and bridges in Illinois are worsening, with greater numbers attaining “deficient” or “obsolete” status each year. Their finding confirms the American Society of Civil Engineers’ grading of Illinois’ overall infrastructure at D-plus.
They also found Illinois’ imposition of stringent truck weight limits, especially on rural routes, creates a need for more truck drivers. Finding those drivers and training them is difficult and costly, according to Informa Economics.
Eriksen’s study stated increasing current weight limits would decrease the need for drivers moving ag products by 20 percent, while saving the ag industry $84 million per year.
The ISA and other ag commodity groups have met with state and federal lawmakers regarding funding for improvements of roads and bridges and other legislative issues; the discussions are ongoing.
According to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, barges using waterways are fuel-efficient, but are not available to all agricultural producers.
“Railroads also are more fuel-efficient and cost-effective than trucks where available, but accessibility can be an issue. Trucks are the most universally accessible mode, providing door-to-door service, but trucking is also the most expensive form of bulk transportation, and least fuel-efficient,” said Steenhoek, in his executive summary of the Informa Economics study, which forecast future trends in ag transportation modes.
Commodity groups will have a chance to lobby for improvements to the nation’s transportation infrastructure systems when the ISA brings together transportation stakeholders, ag industry representatives and, most likely, a few lawmakers during its second annual Export Transportation Summit – set for June 13 in Joliet.