More than half of the nation’s 242 inland waterway locks and dams are nearing or have surpassed their 50-year life spans. About a third are more than 70 years old. By 2020, it’s estimated that 78% of these locks and dams will exceed their design life.
Those built in the 1930s are the oldest and in the worst shape. Many of them have concrete that’s crumbling, failing gates, and are plagued by emergency shutdowns that cause operational and financial headaches for barge operators. But even the newest ones, built in the 1970s and ‘80s and already old by construction standards, are too small for modern-day tows and are showing their age.
Many of the oldest locks and dams along the 12,000-mile commercially navigable inland waterways system were built for steam-powered vessels that pushed small tows. Today, tows are bigger — with up to 15 barges carrying large loads of high-value cargo — and are part of a sophisticated, multimodal transportation network that moves commodities like coal, soybeans, cement and energy products for domestic consumption and international trade.
A recent visit to the oldest and newest locks along the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers, among the nation's busiest for barge traffic, provided visible evidence of the serious decline of inland infrastructure, and the challenge to maintain an efficient, reliable and globally competitive waterways system.
Barge companies and the Army Corps of Engineers consider the LaGrange Lock and Dam at Versailles, Ill., one of the worst. Built in 1939, it is the southernmost lock on the Illinois River, located 80 miles upstream from where the Illinois and Mississippi meet. The structure accommodates a steady stream of barge traffic, moving mostly agricultural commodities as well as recreational vessels.
The deterioration of the lock concrete was obvious during an August press tour put together by the Waterways Council. Segments of the vertical lock wall concrete have been removed so it won’t fall into the river.
But what can’t be seen is even more troubling. Corps officials said the mechanical and electrical systems are obsolete, and that high usage, frequent flooding and freeze-thaw cycles challenge the lock’s operations and reliability. The other issue is the obsolete lock’s size. The LaGrange lock is 600'×110', while today’s big tows require 1,200-foot-long chambers. As a result, tows must be broken up and locked through in two stages, which can produce long waits of up to four hours.
The Corps has been able to keep things going with emergency maintenance, but it is getting increasingly hard to find spare parts. Officials expect repairs to take more time, as replacement parts will need to be special ordered.
“This site is our number one priority for major rehabilitation in the nation,” said Thomas Heinold, deputy chief of operations at the Corps of Engineers, Rock Island (Ill.) District, which is responsible for LaGrange. “It’s as if we bought a car in the 1930s and we’re still going with that original car. We have replaced some components and body parts, but what we really need to do is replace the car.”
The funding history of LaGrange is an example of how navigation projects are inconsistently handled by Congress. A major rehabilitation evaluation report on LaGrange in 2005 estimated a major rehab cost at $72.6 million. Between 2005-2010, Congress appropriated money to design the new 1,200-foot lock, but work was suspended in 2011 due to lack of funding. It is hoped that an infusion of funds into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund from an increase in the barge fuel tax will soon help put the project back on track.
For shippers, modernizing the locks at LaGrange is essential to their business, especially this year when the corn harvest has been one of the biggest on record. “We’re 70 cents below on profit on corn, so pennies matter. This is why we need an efficient waterways system that is competitive to rail. We need that competition because rail can't handle our capacity,” said Rodney Weinzieri, executive director of the Illinois Corn Marketing Board. “Reliability is everything. It will bring our transportation costs down.”
OLD VS. NEW
The Melvin Price Locks and Dam on the Mississippi River in Alton, Ill, is one of the newest facilities in the inland system. Located 20 miles above St. Louis, it opened in 1989. It has two lock chambers — a 600-foot lock used for recreational and smaller craft, and a 1,200'×110' main chamber used for large commercial tows. About 74 million tons of commodities move through the locks annually.
Barge operators who traverse LaGrange and Mel Price say locking through Mel Price is a highlight of their trip, as it usually means a quick and efficient lock-through of only 45 minutes, compared to several hours at LaGrange.
“We get through in less than half the time,” said Jeff Stoneking, captain of the Christopher Myskowski, a 6,140-hp Marquette Transportation Co. towboat that was docked near the Melvin Price locks and welcomed journalists on board. He said towboats must pay close attention when navigating through the smaller chambers. “Those locks are designed for two, four, six barges pushed by steamboat, and we’re now pushing 15. You only get one shot at it.”
Even this newer facility has had its share of breakdowns. Cables for one of Mel Price’s chamber gates failed in 2014, causing an eight-month shutdown of that chamber because materials needed for the repair were not available immediately. Luckily the facility has two chambers, thus avoiding a complete system closure. The incident is an example of another nagging problem for waterways: deferred maintenance. The Corps of Engineers had to defer work on other navigation projects in order to pay the $4 million emergency repairs at Mel Price.
Part of the problem in securing funds for inland infrastructure is that projects are costly and not as visible to the public as other transportation modes, such as road and rail. As a result, Congress has paid scant attention to adequately funding the system. But after years of efforts to educate state and federal lawmakers about the importance of waterways investment, industry officials say prospects for funding have brightened and that many inland locks and dams are finally receiving money for modernization and operations.
Changes are underway in both politics and policy. Corps of Engineers budgets for inland navigation have been the highest ever in recent memory; a much-needed increase in the barge fuel tax is bringing an influx of money to the trust fund that shares the costs of navigation improvements with the federal treasury; Congress has put the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which authorizes water projects and sets water policy, back on a two-year authorization cycle; the cost-share arrangement for the over-budget and expensive Olmsted Locks and Dam project in Illinois was changed to allow more Trust Fund money to be used for other projects; and there’s been a growing acknowledgement, and budget support, from states that rivers are important for commercial, not just recreational uses.
Most recently, a commitment from president-elect Donald Trump to boost the nation’s sagging infrastructure, from highways and bridges to waterways, has given the industry hope that this progress has staying power, and that a flurry of nationwide construction projects will bring new business to the waterways.