The American Society of Civil Engineers performs a useful service every four years with its Infrastructure Report Card, which has been reminding the public of the need for more infrastructure investment since the 1980s. The latest, just-released ASCE report card notes, “Recent boosts in federal investment and an increase in user fees have begun to reverse decades of declining lock and dam conditions, with unscheduled lock closures reaching a 20-year low in 2017.”
Those who sell American commodities overseas, especially grains, have long boasted that part of the high value enjoyed by American corn and soybeans is our transportation advantage: the lower cost of transportation provided by our unparalleled lock and dam system on the natural river system that nature has blessed us with. In recent years, our agriculture competitors, especially Brazil, recognizing this advantage, have upgraded their own transportation networks to try to narrow, and ultimately close, the gap. They have not completely succeeded—yet.
Our transportation advantage has been menaced by the neglect of our aging lock and dam systems, but that began to be addressed as Congress provided more money for waterways infrastructure and as the Corps of Engineers adopted ways to assess risk in aging systems in order to prioritize investment needs.
Demand has not been standing still during this period. America exports about 60 percent of its soybeans overseas, most of which travel by barge to the Gulf. After a period of lower prices caused by many factors, including the tariff wars and the COVID-19 pandemic, world demand for commodities including grains—led by China but by no means confined there—is entering an up-cycle. Prices for corn and soybeans are likely to remain high, with some experts even predicting a global shortage of feed grains.
These high prices come just in time for American farmers, who are losing the government stimulus payments that kept them afloat during the pandemic. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers will receive $21 billion less in government payments in 2021 than they did last year. Farm income could drop by $9.8 billion. Even so, it will remain above the 10-year average if higher grain prices persist.
Those exporters will need the waterways system to keep improving. While the ASCE report card noted improvements, it added, “While this is encouraging, the system still reports a $6.8 billion backlog in construction projects and ongoing lock closures—totaling 5,000 hours between 2015 and 2019—harming the industries that rely on the waterways to get their goods to market.”
Apart from the normal needs of infrastructure, which always persist, President Joe Biden may have another reason for wanting to address it. He has succeeded in passing his COVID bill, albeit with no Republican support, and some reports suggest he may be looking for an issue on which he can show bipartisan support. Infrastructure has always been one such issue.
The coronavirus pandemic has dented the state and local fuel taxes that normally contribute to infrastructure projects. There’s no better way to unify Americans and get the economy moving again than by putting more of them to work on necessary and long-delayed infrastructure improvements, including on the inland waterways.