Iowa farmer Mark Mueller describes it as "a sad state of affairs" when he considers the condition of the United States transportation infrastructure. He says the United States is letting its strongest competitive advantage slip through its fingers.
"I believe we're going to need every competitive edge we're going to have in the future. We have this wonderful infrastructure that was built by our grandparents with a lot of foresight 75 years ago and we've put nothing back into it," he says. "The rest of world, these small countries that don't necessarily have our respect, are getting the job done. Why can't we?"
Currently the Panama Canal Authority is undergoing 5 year expansion project to add a third canal. The new canal will enable ships to carry twice the cargo load through the man-made waterway than can currently go through the system.
On the surface, this sounds like a win-win for the United States exporters and importers. Larger ships mean increased efficiencies and lower shipping costs. However, Soy Transportation Coalition Executive Director Mike Steenhoek says the United States government operates in a mode where it considers only direct benefit and has little foresight for long-term benefits of infrastructure projects. For example, much of the current U.S. port system does not allow for Post-Panamax vessels (ships that are larger than the current maximum size allowed through the Panama Canal) to enter their ports because the channels are not deep enough. Panamax vessels require a 48-foot depth to navigate a channel, whereas Post-Panamax vessels require a 53-foot depth.
Couple that with the fact that the lock system on the Mississippi River can handle only 600-foot tows. Most barges are transported in 1,200-foot tows, requiring them to be broken apart as they pass through the locks on the river system. "My concern is that in the effort of alleviating that bottleneck that currently exists with the Panama Canal, are we simply shifting that bottleneck?" Steenhoek questions.
Alberto Alleman, the administrator for the Panama Canal Authority, says his organization is working with major U.S. ports to alleviate this issue. There is a memorandum of understanding with most of the major ports in the Gulf of Mexico and along the East Coast that will bring them up to standards to serve the new ships passing through the canal. However, this does not mean it is a done-deal.
"Our entire logistics system from the farm to the dinner plate is only as strong as its weakest link," says Steenhoek. "Right now with the Panama Canal being expanded, that weakest link is more and more our lock and dam system.
"Congress has approved the Water Resources Development Act. But just because something has authorized, just because Congress has offered a blueprint, that doesn't mean checks are being written and that doesn't mean that projects are now underway. Farmers need to be engaged in this. It impacts their profitability. Farmers need to look at transportation similar as they look at increased yields, increased marketing opportunities for their ultimate profitability."