Mother Nature and Rail Issues Dominated End of Year Infrastructure Policy

Feb 24, 2023

By Alexa Combelic, ASA Director of Government Affairs

Critical low water levels on the Mississippi River during peak harvest in 2022 backed up 3,000 barges and saw drastic price increases for barge transportation. After the sweeping wins that were delivered in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act at the end of 2021, most in Washington, D.C. anticipated a relatively light year for infrastructure policy in 2022. However, Mother Nature, labor contract negotiators, and typical end-of-year politicking meant this was certainly not the case.

In the early days of 2022, ASA spent time identifying priorities for the biennial Water Resources Development Act, or “WRDA.” This legislation authorizes myriad Army Corps of Engineers projects along our inland waterways. The 2020 WRDA gave inland waterways users their biggest win in years: a change to the cost-share allocation formula for Inland Waterway Trust Fund, or “IWTF,” projects from an even, 50/50 split between the federal government and IWTF user fees to a 65% cost-share footed by the federal government and the remaining 35% funded through the IWTF—albeit with an expiration date of 2030. As inland waterways users continue to clamor for updated dams and expanded lock chambers along the Mississippi River system, this funding change was critical to ensuring projects could be slated for construction and completed in a more swift and cost-effective manner. The 2022 WRDA saw to it that the positive changes that were included in the 2020 bill would be permanent by removing the 2030 expiration date. This means the Army Corps will be able to plan for decades ahead using the new funding formula, allowing planning and design to commence for future projects in perpetuity.

Unfortunately for waterways operators, the legislative wins from 2022 were shadowed by critical low water levels on the Mississippi River. During peak harvest, this event backed up 3,000 barges and saw drastic price increases for barge transportation. The Mississippi River serves as a transportation artery for over $17 billion worth of farm products annually, and the disruptions caused by the drought will take time to return to normal. The White House was in close contact with ASA throughout much of harvest season to understand the impacts of this. While there was no silver bullet solution for such an extreme low water event, the government funneled resources into spot dredging and navigation support.

Growers who rely on multimodal transportation were further threatened this autumn by labor disputes on the freight railroads. After years of negotiations, unions and rail companies could not reach an agreement on new labor contracts. The threat of a rail strike further increased transportation costs and caused disruptions in the shipment of hazardous materials. Without resolution, Congress had to act as a last resort to avert a rail strike by codifying a labor agreement recommended by a government advisory committee.

What we learned this year is that the health of our transportation system can face a variety of threats beyond the D.C. beltway. Maintaining a strong multimodal transportation network and supporting diverse domestic market opportunities can alleviate the economic impact when unexpected bottlenecks and disruptions to the network arise.