Barge services on the Missouri River ready for federal investment
Something else arrived at the AGRIServices of Brunswick terminal on the Missouri River a few weeks ago: a bargeload of tapioca from Thailand.
The overseas product was something the crew members had never seen before, but the challenge excited Lucy Fletcher, ASB’s Business Development Manager.
“We’re just going to do it,” she told port officials. “This is a perfect product for us to move through our system.”
Fletcher is a decision maker at the largest shipping terminal on the Missouri River between Kansas City and Columbia off US 24 in Chariton County. And she’s part of a group of supply chain industry executives working to innovate “underutilized” barge transport on the nation’s longest river.
Efforts to revitalize an age-old transportation industry have drained hundreds of millions of dollars from Congress, partly in the form of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, as well as private companies like ASB.
The ports on the Missouri River were a talking point for President Joe Biden — he highlighted the redevelopment of the Kansas City port during a visit in December — during the introduction of a federal infrastructure spending bill.
“These investments make it easier — businesses can get their goods to market more easily, reduce supply chain bottlenecks, cut costs for families,” Biden said, adding that the region’s “opportunities are limitless.”
While those directly involved in preparing the river for the increased shipping traffic warn they need more time, excitement is mounting among regulators and industry officials.
“Get ready for more traffic”
The supply chain has come under scrutiny since the outbreak of COVID-19, with various shortages and delays in product availability drawing national attention.
Cheryl Ball, Freight and Waterways Administrator for the Missouri Department of Transportation, has worked on the supply chain for more than a decade. Recently, questions are reaching them about how to transport goods reliably without using trains or trucks.
She directs her gaze to the water.
“We have these natural resources that are currently only being used at about 25 percent,” she said.
That was not always so. The Missouri River saw “quite a lot of traffic” before the 2008 recession, Ball said.
But the economic downturn led to a decline in barges venturing west of St. Louis. And the 2019 floods destroyed many of the river’s man-made structures that kept its canal navigable.
Dane Morris oversees repair work for the US Army Corps of Engineers. He is responsible for approximately 500 miles of the Missouri River, stretching from Rulo, Nebraska, to the mouth of the Big Muddy and the Mississippi River near St. Louis.
Morris said the Corps of Engineers identified about 5,000 structures along this stretch, such as B. Wing dikes with cairns that need to be repaired. The federal government has given the Corps nearly $300 million to rebuild — some of it from the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act that Congress passed late last year.
Morris said about a quarter of federal funding has gone to contractors, meaning these projects are solidly underway but “we still have a long way to go.”
The Corps has made significant efforts in recent years since 2019 to prioritize repairs to the navigation canal for the navigation industry — they continue to use the canal — and prepare for increased traffic, Morris said.
When fully restored, the Missouri River will have a “self-cleaning” channel, meaning that the flow of water through the channel will automatically remove sediment at the increased speed of the water.
‘Ag Coast of America’
In November, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, through an executive order, established a supply chain-focused task force that directed its members to develop statewide recommendations for preventing future hiccups.
In its final report, this group made 32 recommendations, five of which directly related to river transport.
“We also believe this can play an important role in supply chain disruptions,” said Mary Lamie, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway and a member of the task force.
With coastal ports congested, Lamie says, voyages up the Mississippi become 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 ships can reach Kansas City; Omaha, Nebraska; and Sioux City, Iowa; by chugging upstream on the Missouri River, a route that receives official Marine Highway designations M-29 and M-70 and roughly corresponds to the Interstate Highways it follows.
The expansion of the container-on-barge service on the Missouri River received designation as a key project from the US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration last year, meaning it is now eligible for more money from the federal Infrastructure Act.
But that’s not the only way to get funding. AGRIServices from Braunschweig has bought in alongside government agencies.
“This particular project, Container-on-Barge, is a very good option because we have a private business partner who is willing to get to work if we would help them by investing relatively small amounts of public funds” , said Ball. “They were willing to put a lot more skin into the game.”
ASB’s role could be de-risking for MoDOT, but it’s also indicative of the opportunities the company sees.
“We’re quite adamant that shipping is the best way to move high-volume, low-value products,” Fletcher said, referring to goods like grain or fertilizer. While the terminal may 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 the Missouri River container-on-barge service, its advocates also highlight how the system’s environmental impact compares to other modes of product transportation.
Exact figures vary between studies, but barge transport emits about half or less carbon dioxide than trucking.
And Lamie sees the increased use of barges as an advantage over other modes of freight transport.
“Actually, they’re maximizing the trucking industry,” she said, “where they can then distribute these bulk products over shorter distances.”
Whether it’s for environmental benefits, economic impact, or connecting farmers directly to ports as far away as East Asia, leading freighters like Fletcher are simply excited about developments on the Missouri River.
“I’m a fan of the Missouri River,” Fletcher said.
The work of the Missouri News Network is written by students and editors of the Missouri School of Journalism for publication by member newspapers of the Missouri Press Association.