The Mississippi River is the lifeblood of Winona and many other Minnesota cities, but as ports, channels, locks, and dams up and down the Mississippi are aging, state and federal funds to repair and improve river transportation infrastructure are uncertain. Releasing a draft of the first-ever statewide plan for ports and waterways, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) hopes to win steady state investments in waterborne shipping. Winona Port Authority staff voiced support for the plan, noting the importance of reliable funding and the need to preserve industrial uses of the river in the face of expanding recreational use.
MnDOT representatives presented the draft plan to the Winona Port Authority Commission on Thursday before holding an open house for public comment on the draft. Port Authority Commissioners listened with interest as state officials laid out their case for state funding of river transport.
Over the last ten years, state funding for port and waterway improvement and maintenance has varied from one million dollars to several million dollars to zero, MnDOT reported. The chart of funding from year to year is a scatter plot. This year, MnDOT has no funding allocated for ports and waterways.
“You didn’t lobby hard enough,” joked Port Authority chair Mike Cichanowksi. The statement elicited chuckles, but there was a seriousness to the comment, too. The inconsistency of state funding makes “it really hard to make longterm plans as far as our infrastructure,” said Port Authority Development Coordinator Myron White.
MnDOT consultant Lee Hutchinson described a serious need for funding. “Over time, the locks and dams continue to age, [along with] the channel controls, [and] wing walls where silting is building up… It’s a looming issue everyone is concerned about,” from New Orleans to St. Paul, he said.
When asked by Port Authority commissioner Mary Glubka how the Army Corps of Engineers fits into the upkeep of river infrastructure, Hutchinson said, “That’s a huge unknown.” Furthermore, how much the Army Corps of Engineers will help in repairing and replacing river transportation infrastructure is unclear, Hutchinson said. “That’s a bigger issue to resolve between states and federal government. It’s a critical issue,” he added.
While shipping freight by barge is dependent on variables such as ice and water levels, it is still the most fuel-efficient method of shipping bulk commodities and the only mode of transportation in the state that is not beset by congestion, according to MnDOT officials. Despite the advantages, barge traffic at the Port of Winona so far this year is half of what it was this time last year, according to city of Winona Port Authority staff. A later thaw this year as compared to last year’s warm spring, combined with fluctuations in river levels — earlier this spring low levels blocked traffic in parts of the river, now high water has stopped barge shipments through Iowa — plus decreased state exports, have all played a part in that reduction.
Other uses for the river are an issue in other communities, and shipments from them affect Winona traffic levels. “As you see in other communities, competing land uses are an issue. For instance, Minneapolis: the tonnages leaving Minneapolis have plummeted because it’s becoming a parkway rather than an industrial area that will move commodities. That should be a concern to all of us.”
MnDOT freight planner Matthew Pahs concurred, saying that the plan had two goals. “This is a tool to show the importance of the waterways to the Legislature, so we can get more stable funding, and show that waterways are important to economy, not just to the city but the county and beyond, so that we utilize this asset to its fullest extent, so we don’t lose it like Myron said is happening in Minneapolis.”
The MnDOT open house was one of three held across the state. St. Paul and Duluth were the other locations. MnDOT hopes to finalize the plan this fall.