ST. LOUIS — If President Donald Trump’s proposed $200 billion infrastructure plan trickles down to Illinois and Missouri, leaders behind the rail, truck and barge industries are mobilized and ready to leverage those resources for the St. Louis region.
Surrounded by agriculture and other industry supporters in Cincinnati, Trump on June 7 announced plans that include improvements for the waterways, highways and railways, as well as for airways. His idea is to devote the $200 billion to help spur private investments into the projects and create improvements worth an estimated $1 trillion.
The president’s announcement was the same day that nearly 100 agriculture, transportation and industry leaders met in Collinsville, Ill., to review the status of critical infrastructure in this growing region.
The St. Louis region, which also encompasses the Metro East area in Illinois, is the second largest freight train interchange in the nation and the third largest by tonnage. The region also is the gateway to the Lower Mississippi River, and 500 million metric tons of barge traffic passes through the locks and dam at Granite City alone.
“This region is a huge and unique asset to the nation, not just to the region, that people don’t realize is so important,” said Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Todd Maisch. “That’s why it’s important that we start a conversation about moving forward with opportunities for improvement.”
Needs And Numbers
Rallied together by the state chambers of commerce in Illinois and Missouri, the meeting tracked current commodity traffic through the region against rapidly growing demands. Simply, infrastructure improvements must be made if truck, rail and barge systems are expected to keep up with growth.
“St. Louis is already called the New Orleans of the North,” said Rick Barbee, SCF Marine vice president of marketing.
The top transportation issue confronted by Midwestern ag, let alone from a Midwestern perspective, is replacement of the antiquated locks and dam system along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. While the barge industry is poised see a 30 percent increase in the barge fleets out of St. Louis, many of those new barges will have larger capacities in anticipation of the business increase.
It also was noted that the locks and dam near Paducah, Ky., on the Ohio River is the busiest in the nation and will be replaced upon the completion of the new locks and dam at Olmstead, Ill.
Likewise, Brad Reinhardt pointed out that truck capacity in the region is poised for 30 percent to 40 percent increases in its freight capacity, but the president of Giltner St. Louis added that higher regional freight rates are a deterrent.
“Our biggest issue right now is the freight rates. We have some of the highest in the country,” he explained. “But we don’t have enough trucks to available freight without competitive rates.”
The Time Has Come
The bridges serving rail over the Mississippi River face similar deterioration issues as the locks and dams, including Merchant Bridge. Although it’s a two-track bridge and busiest train span across the river, the bridge built in 1929 now can only safely handle one train.
“Until we get that bridge replaced, we are going to have a glut and a chokepoint here in St. Louis. So when you look at the intermodal, global modal relationships here, that product comes from the barges to trains and to the trucks. So you really can affect the entire St. Louis delivery system,” explained Azim Raza of the Terminal Railroad Association.
Regional development agencies have worked with transportation leaders to identify needed infrastructure improvements into a priority list. The meeting also included a session on developing public-private partnerships, which was coincidentally well timed and well aligned with Trump’s infrastructure plan.
Several of the American Soybean Association’s Governing Committee members stood along side Trump at the announcement, including Kendell Culp of Rensselaer, Ind.
They attended to help highlight the economic importance of the inland waterways system and the need to invest in upgrades to the locks and dams. Trump’s comments also mentioned the funding backlog for modernization of locks and dams that have exceeded their life expectancy and are deteriorating.
Our Common Future
Upgrading the inland waterways infrastructure is a top priority for ASA, as well as other agricultural commodities.
“We’ve long maintained that the quality of our infrastructure networks in the United States — road, rail, waterways and ports — is directly connected to the competitive advantage we have over other soybean producing countries,” Culp added.
Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr. said in a prepared statement that he believes the bureau’s meetings last spring with White House officials were successful and helped shape Trump’s infrastructure plan.
“Illinois Farm Bureau greatly appreciates President Trump’s statements in Ohio and his recognition that a 21st century lock and dam system will create jobs and make farmers more internationally competitive,” Guebert said.
“We look forward to working with the president and our congressional delegation to pass an infrastructure bill that invests in new 1,200-foot locks on the Illinois and Upper Mississippi River system,” he said.