The History of Transporation
on the Mississippi River

Part Eight
by Richard X. Moore

There is no doubt that the Mississippi River has become an important artery of commerce. Each year, tens of thousands of tons of bulk products move up and down the river, providing jobs and fueling the economy of the Upper Midwest.

The variety of products shipped on the river is impressive. Barges carry agricultural fertilizers, coal, petroleum products, construction materials, steel, and industrial chemicals to river ports throughout the Midwest. But the most important commodity on the river, and the subject of the greatest controversy, is grain.

The barges on the Mississippi serve an important export market, as much of the grain produced in the Upper Midwest is ultimately destined for foreign countries. In all, about half of the barge traffic on the river involves grain shipments to the Gulf of Mexico, where the grain, mostly corn and soybeans, is loaded on ships for overseas transport.

The biggest issue for grain shippers is the delays experienced at Mississippi River locks. During peak seasons, barges are forced to wait at congested locks for several hours before they can lock through. Each hour of delay raises the cost of shipping by as much as $400.

Advocates of lock improvements argue that the Upper Midwest will be shipping increasing amount of grain in the coming years, and that the delays will continue to get worse. When the Corps of Engineers began to assess the need for navigation improvements, they first had to determine what how much traffic the river would carry in the future. The traffic forecasts were then used to assess several different plans to improve the navigation system, ranging from low-cost improvements using the existing locks to large scale lock extensions. The money saved by reducing the delays would be compared with the cost of the improvements and a plan would be selected that would generate more in savings than it would in costs.

The comparison of savings to costs results in what is known as a benefit/cost ratio. In order for the Corps to proceed with a project, the benefit/cost ratio must typically be greater than one, meaning that each dollar of cost would result in more than a dollar in benefits.

The prediction of future river traffic is an inexact science. It involves sophisticated guesses of agricultural production, export demand, and the costs of other transportation options like rail or trucks. The Corps uses a range of assumptions about all of these factors and decided that, according to their view of the future, traffic on the river would double in the next fifty years.

This decision ultimately led the Corps to develop a range of alternative plans involving lock extensions, some of which would cost more than $1 billion. These plans, and the assumptions used to support them, were immediately criticized by a number of observers as unrealistic, expensive, and unnecessary.

Some researchers have noted that the Corps may have made several critical errors in estimating future barge traffic. They feel that the Corps misjudged both the level of agricultural production in the Upper Midwest and the availability of export markets to receive the grain.

Still other have suggested that the Corps grossly underestimated both agricultural production and export demand. They suggest that even the most expensive of the Corps' alternative plans will be inadequate to handle the increase in barge traffic that will occur over the next 50 years.

Who is right? It's impossible to know for sure, because in any event we're predicting trying to predict the future. But the weight of evidence seems to support the theory that the Corps overestimated increases in barge traffic and has proposed expensive improvements that the future will prove to be unnecessary.

It is a complicated issue, and Congress will need to sort it out before they make a final decision. Their task has recently become far more complicated, because sources within the Corps have come forward with allegations that the projections of future barge traffic brought forward by the agency were manipulated to justify large scale improvement to the lock system.

These are very serious allegations, and they're currently being investigated by the Department of Defense and Congress. The outcome of these investigations, and Congress' response to them, could determine the course of Mississippi River management for the next half-century.

to be continued...

History of Mississippi River Transportation
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 9 - Part 10

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