Shipping problems plague upper Mississippi River

Farm Forum

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A difficult Mississippi River shipping season has put a sharper focus on the need to update the upper part of the river’s Depression-era infrastructure.

The river is an important route for the transportation of supplies such as cement, road salt and crops. In the midst of a record corn and soybean harvest, one of the Minnesota’s most important economic systems has been struggling to keep up with demand.

The Star Tribune reports at least two of the state’s highway construction projects were delayed due to a backup of barge traffic on the river, which halted the delivery of cement. Local street projects and private contractors were also affected.

“It’s across the state, it’s across North Dakota and Wisconsin — it’s really an Upper Midwest issue,” said Fred Corrigan, executive director of the Aggregate and Ready Mix Association of Minnesota.

A lack of inexpensive transportation alternatives is worsening the problem for cement contractors and salt suppliers alike.

“We’re very fortunate to have the river,” Corrigan said. “It has the capacity, it’s cheap — it’s a great system.”

Barge traffic was halted for three weeks last summer, which proved how valuable and fragile the system really is. Shippers were forced to shorten their loads from 15 to 12 barges when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was unable to widen a channel near Hastings. The problem area is costing St. Paul-based Upper River Services 20 percent of its capacity, said Lee Nelson, president of the company that moves barges between river terminals.

Most of the locks and dams along the Upper Mississippi River were built around the 1930s and were only meant to last for about 50 years, according to Richard Calhoun, marine and terminal division president at Cargill, which has a fleet of more than 1,200 barges on the river.

Nelson and Calhoun are among a group of shipping industry officials who are willing to help pay for an update to the river’s outdated infrastructure.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is co-sponsoring a bill that would raise a 20-cent-per-gallon tax for shippers by 3 to 6 cents, which would pay for improvements.

“It’s not every day you have a group of people saying they want an increase in their fees,” Klobuchar said of the river shippers. “They’re saying, ‘Yes, it gives us a higher fee, but it gives us the money we need for these upgrades.'”