‘Underutilized’ Missouri River barge services poised for federal investment

June 29, 2022: Columbia Missourian (full link below)

Something different arrived at AGRIServices of Brunswick’s terminal on the Missouri River a few weeks ago: a barge load of tapioca from Thailand.

The product from overseas was something crew members had never seen, but the challenge excited Lucy Fletcher, ASB’s business development manager.

“We’re just gonna do it,” she told the port’s staff. “This is a perfect product for us to be able to move through our system.”

Fletcher is one of the decision-makers at the largest shipping terminal on the Missouri River, located between Kansas City and Columbia on U.S. 24 in Chariton County. And she’s part of a group of supply chain industry leaders working to revamp “underutilized” barge transportation on the nation’s longest river.

The effort to revive an age-old transportation industry has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars from Congress, partially in the form of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, plus private companies such as ASB.

Missouri River ports have been a talking point for President Joe Biden — he highlighted redevelopment of Kansas City’s port on a December visit — during the rollout of a federal infrastructure spending bill.

“These investments make it easier — easier for companies to get their goods to market, reducing supply chain bottlenecks, lowering costs for families,” Biden said, adding that the region’s “possibilities are unlimited.”

While those directly involved in preparing the river for heavier barge traffic caution that they need more time, excitement is building among agency and industry figures.

‘Get ready for increased traffic’

The supply chain has come under scrutiny since the onset of COVID-19, with varying shortages and delays in product availability drawing national attention.

Cheryl Ball, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s Freight and Waterways Administrator, has worked on the supply chain for more than a decade. Lately, she’s been getting questions about how to reliably transport goods without using trains or trucks.

She’s directing her gaze toward the water.

“We have these natural resources that are only about 25% used right now,” she said.

That hasn’t always been the case. The Missouri River saw “quite a bit of traffic” before the 2008 recession, Ball said.

But the economic downturn led to a decline in barges venturing west of St. Louis. And 2019 flooding demolished many of the river’s man-made structures that kept its channel navigable.

Dane Morris oversees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ repair efforts. He’s responsible for about 500 miles of the Missouri River, the stretch from Rulo, Nebraska, to the Big Muddy’s confluence with the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

Morris said the Corps of Engineers has identified about 5,000 structures in that stretch, such as rock-pile wing dikes, that require repairs. The federal government has given the Corps close to $300 million for rebuilding — some from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Congress passed late last year.

Morris said about a quarter of the federal funds have been awarded to contractors, meaning those projects are solidly underway, but that there’s “still a long ways to go.”

The Corps, over the past few years since 2019, has put a significant effort into prioritizing repairs to the navigation channel for the navigation industry — they continue to use the channel — and into getting ready for increased traffic, Morris said.

Once fully restored, the Missouri River will have a “self-scouring” channel, meaning the water flow through the channel will remove sediment automatically with the water's increased speed.