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Missouri River barge services poised for federal investment

by Missouri News Network | July 30, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Something different arrived at AGRIServices of Brunswick's terminal on the Missouri River a few weeks ago: a barge load of tapioca from Thailand.

The product from overseas was something crew members had never seen, but the challenge excited Lucy Fletcher, ASB's business development manager.

"We're just gonna do it," she told the port's staff. "This is a perfect product for us to be able to move through our system."

Fletcher is one of the decision-makers at the largest shipping terminal on the Missouri River, located between Kansas City and Columbia on U.S. 24 in Chariton County. And she's part of a group of supply chain industry leaders working to revamp "underutilized" barge transportation on the nation's longest river.

The effort to revive an age-old transportation industry has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars from Congress, partially in the form of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, plus private companies such as ASB.

Missouri River ports have been a talking point for President Joe Biden -- he highlighted redevelopment of Kansas City's port on a December visit -- during the rollout of a federal infrastructure spending bill.

"These investments make it easier -- easier for companies to get their goods to market, reducing supply chain bottlenecks, lowering costs for families," Biden said, adding that the region's "possibilities are unlimited."

While those directly involved in preparing the river for heavier barge traffic caution they need more time, excitement is building among agency and industry figures.

'Get ready for increased traffic'

The supply chain has come under scrutiny since the onset of COVID-19, with varying shortages and delays in product availability drawing national attention.

Cheryl Ball, the Missouri Department of Transportation's Freight and Waterways Administrator, has worked on the supply chain for more than a decade. Lately, she's been getting questions about how to reliably transport goods without using trains or trucks.

She's directing her gaze toward the water.

"We have these natural resources that are only about 25 percent used right now," she said.

That hasn't always been the case. The Missouri River saw "quite a bit of traffic" before the 2008 recession, Ball said.

But the economic downturn led to a decline in barges venturing west of St. Louis. And 2019 flooding demolished many of the river's man-made structures that kept its channel navigable.

Dane Morris oversees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' repair efforts. He's responsible for about 500 miles of the Missouri River, the stretch from Rulo, Nebraska, to the Big Muddy's confluence with the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

Morris said the Corps of Engineers has identified about 5,000 structures in that stretch, such as rock-pile wing dikes, that require repairs. The federal government has given the Corps close to $300 million for rebuilding -- some from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Congress passed late last year.

Morris said about a quarter of the federal funds have been awarded to contractors, meaning those projects are solidly under way, but there's "still a long ways to go."

The Corps, over the past few years since 2019, has put a significant effort into prioritizing repairs to the navigation channel for the navigation industry -- they continue to use the channel -- and into getting ready for increased traffic, Morris said.

Once fully restored, the Missouri River will have a "self-scouring" channel, meaning the water flow through the channel will remove sediment automatically with the water's increased speed.

'Ag Coast of America'

In November, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson created a supply chain-focused task force through an executive order, instructing its members to develop recommendations for avoiding future hiccups throughout the state.

That group issued 32 recommendations in its final report, five of which related directly to river transportation.

"We also feel that this can play an important role during supply chain disruptions," said Mary Lamie, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway and a task force member.

When coastal ports clog up, Lamie said, travel up the Mississippi River becomes an increasingly attractive option; she branded Missouri's inland waterway system as the "Ag Coast of America."

The Mississippi provides direct access to St. Louis, of course, but vessels can reach Kansas City; Omaha, Nebraska; and Sioux City, Iowa; by chugging upstream on the Missouri River, a route given the formal marine highway designations of M-29 and M-70, roughly corresponding to the interstate highways it follows.

Expansion of Missouri River container-on-barge service received key project designation last year from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration, meaning it's now eligible for more money through the federal infrastructure bill.

That's not the only avenue for funding, though. AGRIServices of Brunswick has bought in alongside government entities.

"This particular project, container-on-barge, is a very nice option because we have a private business partner willing to step up to the plate if we would help them by investing relatively small amounts of public funds," Ball said. "They were willing to put a lot more skin in the game."

ASB's role might be risk mitigation for MoDOT, but it's also an indication of the opportunity the company sees.

"We're pretty big believers that barge transportation is the best way to move high-bulk, low-value products," Fletcher said, referring to goods such as grain or fertilizer. While the terminal might have seen its first load of tapioca, it doesn't expect a barge loaded with iPhones to arrive any time soon, she joked.

Aside from the capacity of Missouri River container-on-barge service, its advocates also highlight how the system's environmental impact compares to other modes of product transportation.

Exact values vary between studies, but barge transportation emits about half or less the amount of carbon dioxide that trucks do.

And Lamie sees increased use of barges as a benefit to other modes of freight transportation.

"Actually, you're kind of maximizing the trucking industry," she said, "where they then are able to distribute those bulk products in shorter distances."

Whether citing environmental benefits or economic impact or more directly connecting farmers with ports as far away as East Asia, freight industry leaders such as Fletcher are just excited about what's evolving on the Missouri River.

"I'm a Missouri River fan," Fletcher said.

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.

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