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Safe, Clean and Efficient: Moving Minnesota to Market by Water

December 16, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

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Minnesota’s marine navigation industry pumps a billion dollars a year into the state’s economy, providing farmers, miners, foresters and manufacturers a low-cost, safe, energy-efficient way to export their products.

About three-quarters of Minnesota’s grain exports travel by barge or ship. More than 60 percent of all our agricultural exports move down the Mississippi River. The Twin Cities ties 6,000 jobs to river navigation. At the Duluth-Superior terminals, 2,000 jobs depend on port operations.

Waterways shipping also boosts transportation safety, preserves land-based infrastructure and saves fuel. One gallon of diesel fuel moves a ton of freight 576 miles by river barge, 436 miles by railroad and only 155 miles by truck, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Great Lakes carriers do even better than barges, wringing 607 ton-miles from every gallon of diesel.

Commercial navigation also takes a lot of wear and tear off roads and rails. In the Northland, the average Great Lakes ship out of Duluth and other North Shore ports takes up to 700 train cars off the rails and 3,000 semi trucks off Minnesota highways.

The state’s ports provide tremendous return for Minnesota’s taxpayers. Waterways infrastructure and maintenance are funded by the shipping industry and the federal government via a marine fuel tax. Port facilities, however, require partnerships among businesses, local governments and the state.

MnDOT lists nearly $65 million in needs to enhance the ports’ viability in coming years, including dredging and better ground transportation to docks on the Mississippi and Lake Superior. Since the mid-1990s, the state has invested just $1.5 million a year in these vital projects, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the Legislature’s most recent bonding appropriation of $3 million.

The state should not give up support of this valuable resource for Minnesota’s economy. It deserves sustained, prudent attention to whittle down the backlog of needed improvements.


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  • Jim Mork says:

    February 11, 2013 at 2:05 am

    Many valuable parts of the economy are built on the assumption of a water resource. Normally we think of water as an ingredient in food or processes like making ethanol.  But flowing rivers also support a lot of transport. And the 2012 phase of the midcontinent drought has raised consciousness about weather and barge traffic.  If climate change continues to rob some areas of rainfall while flooding others, that could put a chokehold on this path to market.  Too much water is a familiar disaster.  But dwindling rivers is another kind. It may be a big challenge in the near future.