Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, and Senator Fitzgerald, I am Ron Warfield, President of Illinois Farm Bureau, the state’s largest general farm organization, representing nearly three out of every four Illinois farmers. It is a pleasure to participate in this important field hearing in a state that is truly the “Crossroads of our Nation.”
Illinoisans take great pride in having access to a vast array of transportation systems that promote commerce. Our highways, railroads, rivers, and port facilities are essential to the efficient movement of agricultural and food products that account for billions of dollars in economic activity. However, as other nations invest in their transportation systems, we appear to be losing one of our major competitive advantages.
To remain a global leader in trade, and for enhanced domestic market competitiveness, improvements in our transportation infrastructure are needed. Specifically, we would like the reauthorization of TEA 21 to include the following:
Highway trust funds should be protected. Funds collected from highway users for highway purposes should be spent on highway projects. Highway users should not bear the brunt of funding recreational trails or public transit systems.
We are very aware of the discussions of highway tax revenues and the excise tax incentives for ethanol’s impact on highway trust funds. Senators Grassley and Baucus are working with a broad group of interests to produce a compromise that retains dollars within the highway trust fund while maintaining the incentive for ethanol. We feel retention of the tax incentive is needed to foster an emerging ethanol industry that can help our country become more energy independent.
Exports. Illinois farmers export more than 40% of the grain they produce. But, the grain export business isn't nearly as efficient as it could or should be.
We need to reduce congestion around our nation’s ports. The American Association of Port Authorities ranks Chicago and St. Louis among the nation’s top 30 ports for total cargo volume. Unloading, loading and access to the ports by road and rail should be a focus of improvement projects.
Rail competition and capacity is critical to an efficient transportation infrastructure network. Short rail lines need assistance in their efforts to move grain efficiently when interfacing with major rail lines. We see local elevators that set on a rail-side unable to meet minimum rail-car drops because the class I rail lines find it difficult to service short lines.
A part of the infrastructure network that must play an equally important part of our system but is not the focus of TEA 3, is our river system. The locks on the Illinois and Upper Mississippi Rivers are nearly 70 years old. It takes far too long for barges to move through these antiquated structures, boosting transportation costs. Those delays are estimated to cost Illinois farmers six cents per bushel of corn. Of course the more it costs to transport grain, the less competitive we are against the likes of lower cost South American farmers. The governments of Brazil and Argentina understand this and have made transportation system improvements a national priority.
Despite the delays, barges are the most efficient means of transportation in the Midwest. One barge tow can transport more than 20-thousand tons of grain - about the same as the capacity of 870 semi-trucks. More barges mean fewer trucks, less congestion, less wear and tear on our highways, and cleaner air.
Farm Bureau supports 1200-foot locks on the Illinois River at Peoria and LaGrange and at five lower sites on the Mississippi. We are working with other farm organizations, the shipping industry and organized labor to build a broad grassroots base of support needed to accomplish our goal. If we succeed, it will create thousands of construction jobs for many years and benefit farmers and our nation for decades to come.
Before I finish, I’d like to share a story that demonstrates the need for investment in our nation’s transportation system. Three years ago, Illinois Farm Bureau sent a delegation to China. They reported back that the transportation infrastructure in China was so undeveloped that it was cheaper to import corn from the United States into southern China than to ship it from the northern part of China. And northern China was a major corn exporter! We believed a situation like this could never happen in the United States, until now.
Loads of South American soybeans are now being imported into South Carolina, because they are cheaper than the beans we can ship by rail or ocean-going barges from the Midwest.
That tells me our system needs a fix.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony today. We look forward to working with you, the committee and Senator Fitzgerald to address these issues.