President Trump is touting the need to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, and water transportation systems this week and farmers are among those hoping to benefit from new federal attention to infrastructure.
In a speech in Cincinnati, the president specifically mentioned the aging system of locks and dams on the nation’s rivers, which is fundamental to the business of U.S. agriculture. Inland waterways carry 60 percent of U.S. grain exports to the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Iowa Corn Growers Association. When passage is hampered due to broken or poorly performing parts, farmers see their per-bushel payments start to slide.
“We could really improve the system if we just increased reliability [and] did a better job of preservation and maintenance,” says Soy Transportation Coalition executive director Mike Steenhoek, who attended the president’s speech, which was not open to the public. “That’s not a very sexy topic. You don’t have the ribbon cutting moment when you just emphasize maintenance, but it’s very, very important and it’s really essential for the profitability of our industry.”
Steenhoek says he was encouraged by the attention President Trump paid to the needs of the river system, but he says he’s still waiting to hear specifics.
For example, while in his speech Trump spoke of a $1 trillion plan, he also said public-private partnerships would play an important role in carrying out his intentions. Steenhoek says the types of public-private arrangements that work on, for example, toll roads may not transfer readily to locks and dams.
“The question about the inland waterway system, and whether a public-private partnership can apply to that, that’s something that still a lot of due diligence needs to be applied to it,” Steenhoek says, “and really understand would it work, would it not work?”
Steenhoek says infrastructure should generate bipartisan support, but he’s not confident Congress will appropriate money for the president’s plans this year because of other issues “sucking all of the oxygen out of the room.”
Mayors from cities along the Mississippi River also urged the president to consider inland waterways for infrastructure funds.
“Of all the inland waterways of the continent, the Mississippi River is by far the most important to our nation’s economy, exports, and water security,” says Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul, Minn., in a statement from the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. That group puts the price tag of agricultural commodities traveling down the river toward international markets at almost $165 billion.
Reliance on declining infrastructure is a common theme in the agriculture industry. More than 200 agriculture and commodity groups signed a letter in March asking the Trump administration to include rural projects in a proposed update to infrastructure, citing the agriculture industry’s dependence on moving its goods to far-flung markets. (PDF)