An organization named “America’s Watershed” recently released a report card on the country’s inland waterway systems, three of which are important to Missouri (the upper Mississippi, the lower Mississippi, and the Missouri River). Unfortunately, Missouri’s waterways received poor marks (Ds and Fs) for transportation and infrastructure condition, which could lead to Missouri missing important opportunities for growth in the coming decades.
While organizations that release infrastructure report cards are almost universally pushing for greater investment (and therefore tend to be alarmist about current conditions), there is little doubt that Missouri’s waterway infrastructure is in a poor state of repair. Nearly every lock and dam on the upper Mississippi is well past its useful life. While many don’t think of the rivers as important carriers of freight, Missouri’s rivers carry almost 50 million tons of freight annually. Rivers are especially important for shipping agricultural products and commodities to international markets. And with the expansion of the Panama Canal nearly completed, the Mississippi River may become a more important conduit for Missouri’s exports in the future.
The federal government is primarily responsible for maintaining and improving waterway navigability, specifically through the Army Corps of Engineers. Theoretically, funding for the Corps’ projects should come from a 29 cent per gallon tax on barge fuel. When the Corps takes on a new project, it is also supposed to split the costs 50-50 with barge companies.
In reality, barge fuel tax revenue is insufficient for such a system to work. Even with a rate increase last year, the tax will bring in only about $100 million in revenue in 2015. Individual lock and dam projects usually cost hundreds of millions—if not billions—of dollars to complete. Thus, while dozens of projects require repairs, the Corps can only address a few projects at any given time. And even these require heavy taxpayer subsidies. In 2015, general funds accounted for 70% of federal spending on inland waterways. Worse yet, 50-50 cost splits with barge companies are honored more in the breach, because Corps projects regularly run over budget. Overruns are handled by taxpayers, not barge companies. The table below lists the two largest lock and dam projects and shows the division of costs for each.
A federal body notorious for cost overruns and funded with insufficient user taxes is unlikely to build and maintain an efficient, modern, inland waterway transport system. The shipping companies and exporters that would directly benefit from an improved system could, with federal coordination, make the necessary investments. But until they do, Missouri will not be in a position to see large economic gains from the Panama Canal expansion and can expect low marks for its waterways in the future.