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No quick fixes for waterways

DANIEL LOOKER 02/28/2014 @ 6:27pm Business Editor

Extreme weather and government neglect are combining once again to challenge barge shipping on U.S. waterways, according to the head of a major commodities shipper who joined in a panel discussion on transportation challenges during the Commodity Classic in San Antonio, Texas, Friday.


The weather--extreme cold instead of the drought of 2012 that lowered water levels--is unusual. The government neglect isn't, although Congress appears to be a few months away from approving legislation that will authorize, but not necessarily fund, major repairs to locks and dams on the Mississippi River and other waterways.


Ice on Lake Pepin, a large natural lake on the Mississippi downstream from St. Paul, Minnesota, is 30 inches thick today, reported Rick Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, the barge shipping business of Cargill, Inc. 


"It isn't going to melt any time soon, so we'll have a late opening on the Upper Mississippi," Calhoun said, adding a few minutes later that he expects "a challenging spring."


Calhoun wasn't predicting the problems of 2012, however. "This kind of water is easier to deal with than low water," he said.


But Cargill and other barge companies are currently dealing with unscheduled repairs on the Melvin Price Locks and Dam near St. Louis, where repairs on the main lock have forced barge tows to go through a smaller auxiliary lock, causing delays of about 40 hours, Calhoun told Agriculture.com.


Such delays aren't unusual. According to U.S. Corps of Engineers data, the nation's water transportation system suffers from 166,000 hours a year of lock and dam closings from unscheduled and planned repairs, Calhoun said.


The dam near St. Louis is relatively new. Some older locks and dams built in the 1930s and 1940s don't even have auxiliary locks and have the potential to block shipping long enough to cause damage to the U.S. economy, a problem that shippers and commodity groups like the United Soybean Board, American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers have been working on for decades.


Both the House and Senate have passed new Water Resources Development legislation, but the bill is currently languishing in a conference committee to work out differences before a final vote in Congress.


Calhoun told the panel that he's confident the bill will pass in May or June.


"I think we have more momentum on this subject on infrastructure than we've had in the last decade," he told farmers Friday.


The bill doesn't have an increase in the barge fuel tax that the industry and farm groups say is needed to help fund major improvements in the locks and dams. But Calhoun is encouraged that the higher fuel tax is included in tax reform legislation introduced earlier this week by Representative Dave Camp (R-MI), head of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.


Few expect Camp's ambitious bill to be enacted in an election year but the barge fuel tax could survive. 

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