Rolling on the River

By Barb Baylor Anderson

Regulation, infrastructure and weather. Three factors that could make or break Illinois’ enviable, ideal location for competitive river transportation of soybeans. But with regulatory uncertainty, crumbling locks and dams and more frequent extreme weather events, how does the state get ahead of the game to keep commodities rolling on the river? 

“A variety of factors can lead to disruption, including severe weather, changing water levels, energy cost fluctuations, tariffs and shifts in global regulations and trade,” confirms Mary Lamie, executive director with St. Louis Regional Freightway which supports the bi-state region’s intermodal freight network. “Supply chain disruptions along the river are critical concerns.”

The same three factors can cause disruption outside the water transportation network when they affect the amount of ag products produced or strain other transport providers. Either scenario increases demand for waterways freight transit. And the Department of Transportation predicts during the next three decades, national and global population growth will significantly increase the volume of containerized cargo and truck freight that will need to move throughout the U.S. 

Illinois a Key Player

Illinois could play a continued crucial role in increasing domestic and global transport with 1,118 miles of navigable waterways bordering or passing through the state. The Illinois Marine Transportation System (IMTS) includes the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio and Kaskaskia rivers, Chicago Area Waterway System and Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System. 

“These waterways not only provide Illinois with intrastate and interstate connectivity but also international connections through the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico,” says BJ Murray, section chief for aviation and marine transportation program planning, Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) Office of Planning and Programming. 

Nineteen public port districts provide water and land transportation infrastructure in Illinois. One of the most active is the Illinois International Port in Chicago. Murray says the port is served by 12 railroads offering separate direct access to Interstates 90 and 94. 

“These major links provide the most cost-effective method for connecting Illinois to domestic and world markets and makes the economic success of agriculture possible,” says Murray.

St. Louis is another key port when it comes to freight and logistics with four interstate highways, six Class I railroads and the third largest inland port system. The region has the northernmost ice-free and lock-free access on the Mississippi River to and from the Gulf of Mexico. 

“This is supported by excess capacity at river terminals and a high concentration of barges, resulting in inexpensive freight rates. A 15-mile stretch of the Mississippi River, known as the ‘Ag Coast of America,’ has the highest level of grain barge handling capacity anywhere along the river, with 16 barge transfer facilities handling more than 150 barges a day,” says Lamie.

Waterways Challenges

To maintain and grow Illinois’ waterways advantage, supply chain stakeholders say regulation, infrastructure and climate change must be addressed with an eye on the future.

Amy Larson, president of the National Waterways Conference (NWC), works with its members, including the Illinois Soybean Association, to monitor the impact of national policy issues like the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS). WRDA authorizes water infrastructure improvements and provides policy direction to the Corps, while WOTUS, the Clean Water Act, defines the scope of federal water protection reach.

“We take a big picture policy approach. We partner with the Corps to talk about needed waterways improvement projects, including deepening ports and rebuilding docks, to expedite project delivery and implement processes for greater efficiencies,” says Larson. “In addition, the Corps needs an efficient stream of funding both to maintain existing infrastructure, much of which is disintegrating, and to provide for new construction.”

Larson also notes the regulatory process has been streamlined. In the spring of 2018, the Trump Administration announced its One Federal Decision Memorandum of Understanding that established among several government agencies a coordinated, timely process for environmental reviews of major infrastructure projects.

“Coordination among all groups with just one lead agency will improve efficiency,” she says. Ongoing proceedings to revise procedures to implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will lead to greater regulatory process efficiencies.

“We must coordinate with stakeholders on environmental concerns, such as invasive species, to ensure protection and mitigation are swiftly made,” adds Murray. “We also must respond to scenarios including change in climate, ensuring adequate movement of goods and people, overall security and safety and a healthy economy. The IMTS can help increase adaptability to change and allow Illinois to reap environmentally sustainable efficiencies of water transportation.”

Climate change is on the radar of a growing list of groups, heightened by release of the National Climate Assessment last November. The report notes, “Aging and deteriorating water infrastructure, typically designed for past environmental conditions, compounds the climate risk faced by society. Water management strategies that account for changing climate can help reduce present and future risks to water security, but implementation remains limited.”

Innovative SolutionsRolling on the River

To address these and other factors, coordinated industry efforts may be one way to make sure the state and nation are prepared for potential future waterways transportation issues.

“It is to the advantage of Illinois and the nation to offer insightful strategic direction for further development of the IMTS and National Marine Transportation System (NMTS),” says Murray. “We are committed to collaboratively working with partner agencies and stakeholders to resolve channel maintenance and the backlog of major lock and dam rehabilitation and maintenance.” 

Murray says programs administered though the Corps have previously been unable to adequately fund maintenance to ensure the navigation system operates at an acceptable level. IDOT has recently begun providing technical and capital assistance to port facilities, awarding more than $15 million in national highway freight funds through the Illinois Competitive Freight Program. 

Larson agrees with the partnership approach. The NWC interacts not only with the Corps, but also the Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and others regarding navigation issues. The NWC also looks for opportunities to develop private-public partnerships for improvements, as does St. Louis Regional Freightway.

“Working closely with the private sector, we hear firsthand from those who rely on the inland waterway system about the issues, challenges and opportunities they face. We work closely with our partners to monitor these concerns, but at the same time establish the collaboration and connections with public sector leaders so that concerns are shared and addressed,” Lamie says.  

New transportation options also will address obstacles. Container on barge (COB) and container on vessel (COV) services may be the future for maximizing the inland waterway’s underutilized capacity. Lamie says both reduce highway congestion and emissions while taking advantage of the expanded Panama Canal and increased delays and volume along the coasts. 

For example, COV vessels can carry up to 2,500 containers at 13 miles per hour with virtually no wake, making round trips significantly faster than container on barge. Lamie says the ability to carry so much cargo on a marine route from Asia to the Midwest will dramatically reduce shippers landed transportation costs versus rail and truck from other gateway ports.

“The key to avoiding one of the largest concerns for the freight, logistics and ag industries — supply chain disruption — is to have modal flexibility and multimodal interconnectivity,” she says. “We are strengthening this network by embracing new technology.”