By Jennifer Prohov and Danielle Hogerty
April 28, 2016
This story was originally created for the Missouri School of Journalism.
Barges moving down the Missouri River were once common sight, but competition from trucks and trains caused barges to fall out of favor. But now, as ground transportation is reaching the limits of its capacity, some farmers are looking to the nation’s waterways to get their products to market.
Officials at the Missouri Department of Transportation are expecting to see about a 27 percent increase in the number of tons shipped via barge in the state by 2030.
The increase is part of a bigger upward trend in the amount of freight that is shipped across the state, Bryan Ross, the waterways and freight manager at MoDOT, explained. But with shipping on highways and railways almost at capacity, Ross said he is looking towards Missouri’s waterways to provide a solution.
“Our highway system is pretty much at capacity- there's a lot of congestion out there if you've driven on I-70, I-44, there are a lot of trucks out there,” he said. “And without funds to add more lanes, which may not even be the best solution, that congestion will only get worse. Rail is also close to being at capacity.”
According to MoDOT’s Missouri State Freight Plan, 49 percent of the freight tonnage in Missouri is moved by trucks, 45 percent is moved by rail and 5 percent is transported via barge on the water.
The rivers, therefore, have plenty of room for more freight, Ross said.
“We don't have congestion on the rivers, so as we have more freight being moved in and out of the state, the rivers offer an overflow valve,” he said.
Missouri has 1,050 miles of rivers that barges can use, with 500 miles on the Mississippi River and 550 miles on the Missouri River, according to MoDOT’s Missouri State Freight Plan.
MoDOT requested $7.5 million for fiscal year 2016 and $3 million for fiscal year 2015 from the state legislature to improve public ports along the waterways. The funds will help them prepare for the growth in the amount of goods transported across the state.
The Howard/Cooper County Regional Port Authority is one such port. They’re working to build a new port north of Boonville on the Missouri River and have purchased the land to do so, Ross said. They previously operated a port, but the original site was no longer in acceptable condition for use.
Kendall Kircher of the Howard/Cooper County Regional Port Authority explained that reopening the port will bring more business opportunities to farmers like him in the area.
We need all the outlets we can get, he said. When we had a bumper crop, it was hard to find anywhere to go with it. Having barge traffic on the river gives you another source to sell to too.
For this coming fiscal year, MoDOT’s request included almost $400,000 for the Howard/Cooper County Regional Port Authority to conduct engineering surveys for an access road and dock.
Ross said that if there is more barge traffic on the Missouri River, farmers will have an easier time getting their products to market, which in turn decreases their shipping costs and increases their profit margins. That means more money in farmers’ pockets that can be reinvested in the state, he said.
In 2016, MoDOT invested about $3.56 million in the Kansas City Port Authority. In the previous year, it invested about $600,000 in both the Kansas City Port Authority and the St. Joseph Regional Port Authority.
But getting the funds to improve ports isn’t the only concern that needs to be met to maintain the river.
“The Missouri River is a low-use waterway, and so when they do the budgeting, and they have a limited pot, more of the funds go to - and reasonably so - go to the projects and the rivers that have the most traffic,” Jody Farhat, the chief of Missouri River Basin Water Management Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers, said.
The corps is responsible for regulating six dams on the main stem of the Missouri River, which allows them to control and maintain the water level along the river. They can release water from dams when necessary to keep water levels above the 9-foot depth required for barge traffic.
The corps will only release water for navigation purposes April 1 through December 1. This has created a perception among barge operators, Ross explained, that the river is too fickle to operate on.
“The primary obstacle we see to freight movement on the Missouri River is one of perception,” he said. “There is a perception in the navigation and shipping industry that the Missouri River is navigationally unreliable, and we are working to dispel that myth.”
Ross said that the river is poised for a comeback.
“The Missouri River is ready to get back to work,” he said.