Corps to undertake new study of Minnesota locks

The future of the three Mississippi River locks in Minneapolis, Minn., may hinge on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study announced Monday.

Options in the $1.2 million locks project, which begins in the fall and is expected to take less than two years, include keeping the status quo, removing the locks permanently, or turning the facilities over to other federal, state or local entities. The ultimate fate of the locks lies with Congress.

The study for the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls locks and dams and Lock & Dam 1 was prompted by the closure in June 2015 of Upper St. Anthony, which is still authorized to operate for flood risk management, the Corps said.

The northernmost lock on the river at mile 853.9 was 52 years old when it was killed by Congress in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014. Proponents of the closing said it was to protect the waterway from Asian carp, though there was no mention of the voracious fish in the legislation. Others said it was designed to get rid of river-dependent businesses and redevelop the area.

The three locks all operate as a system and cost $1.5 million annually to maintain, said Corps spokesman George Stringham. The study, which the public can comment on when the draft is ready, will help determine what becomes of them if they are no longer authorized.

Taylor Luke, president of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, is wary of the precedent that closing all three locks could set.

Upper St. Anthony’s demise rendered the other two locks “basically useless,” he said, taking Minneapolis out of the river system. If the closings are based on usage alone, “what’s to keep you from marching down the river” and closing others?

Corps statistics show 616 commercial lockages at Lower St. Anthony in 2016 versus 897 in 2015, and 104 at Lock & Dam 1 versus 307 in 2015.

The locks are absolutely vital for getting commodities to market, Luke said. “If they start closing down locks and dams, it kills that business right there. In Minneapolis, there’s a lot more trucks on the road.”

The game-changer was the Upper St. Anthony closing, which meant businesses closed, moved or switched to all trucks.

The cost of shifting from barge to truck will increase $21.5 million through 2040, based on factors such as vehicle operating costs, added highway travel time, “and safety and environmental costs of moving the various types of commodities through the state by truck,” according to a Corps environmental assessment. The closure means an increase of more than 21,000 truck trips a year to the highway system primarily during the workweek and the loss of 84 jobs.

The Minneapolis locks aren’t the only ones whose fate is being scrutinized. In May, the Corps proposed de-authorizing and disposing of the Willamette Falls Locks in Oregon, after a minor modification for seismic retrofits and installation of perimeter fencing and debris and boat barriers.

The locks about 20 miles from Portland, Ore., opened in 1873 and are the oldest multilift bypass navigation lock in the nation.

“Given the low national ranking and the continued decline in commercial tonnage through the Locks, future funding for required repairs to restore the facility to a safe operable condition has been deemed not economically justifiable,” the Corps said in its study.

The lock could be transferred to a local entity, which could own and operate the facility as a historical lock.

About the author

Dale K. DuPont

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.

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