Railroad officials and customers hope the projected Oct. 1 completion date for a new bridge, which parallels the Sixth Street bridge, stays on track. If not, it will take longer to move grain to processors in Cedar Rapids and transportation costs will continue to suffocate profits.
Iowa Northern officials say the bridge is 35 percent complete. Workers are building the deck on the banks of the Cedar River while others work on supports.
"Let's pray for no more rain, for the water level to stay down so (contractors) can get the work done," said Amy Homan, Iowa Northern marketing director. "They're (customers) all pretty nervous."
The company operates 163 miles of track between Manly and Cedar Rapids. It services 17 county elevators, two ethanol plants and hauls tractors for John Deere. The bridge used to carry at least six trains a day. Now, those same trains detour as much as 300 miles.
A train full of grain that used to take one day to go from Manly to Cedar Rapids now takes three or more. The railroad is losing about $1 million a month in revenue and extra expenses like fuel, which is shared by customers.
In some cases, farmers are losing about seven cents per bushel in extra transportation costs, Homan said.
Iowa Northern typically ships 180 million bushels of corn and soybeans, primarily to Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill in Cedar Rapids. It also transports about 240 million gallons of ethanol and 400,000 tons of distiller's grains annually for Hawkeye Energy plants in Shell Rock and Fairbank.
Wil Manweiler, grain merchandiser for the Dunkerton Co-op, has been keeping tabs on the construction. Not only will the bridge's completion keep grain moving, it will put more money in producer's pockets.
"(The closure) has made ADM not as competitive by rail," Manweiler said.
Union Pacific is overseeing the estimated $6-million repair project. More than half of the cost is covered by grants. Iowa Northern will pay half of the remaining bill.
A thriving short-line railroad is vital to the success of agriculture in Northeast Iowa, said Bruce Rastetter, CEO of Hawkeye Energy. A 25-car train full of corn equates to about 75 trucks.
"It's just a matter of cost," Rastetter said. "(The bridge) saves my plants money and makes Iowa Northern money."