Mississippi River May Get New and Upgraded Locks

Published July 1, 2004

After 12 years of studying the Upper Mississippi River System, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its $70 million analysis on March 6. The Corps is recommending construction of seven new 1,200-foot locks along the waterway and the expansion of five existing ones. The current locks, constructed in the 1930s, are not large enough to accommodate what is today a typical barge tow of 15 barges.

The seven new lock and dam locations were pegged for immediate pre-engineering design. “The sense of urgency comes from the fact that the system out there is limping along right now,” Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, Corps Chief of Engineers, told the Associated Press in a recent interview. “The fear we have is that we’ll have some catastrophic breakdown in the system, which will have a major economic impact.”

The Corps’ recommendations must be approved by Congress. Half of the estimated $2.4 billion construction cost would be paid by shippers through the Inland Waterway Trust Fund. Additional measures aimed at ecosystem restoration would cost roughly $5.3 billion and would be primarily federally funded.

Welcomed by Most
Christine Favilla, Three Rivers project manager for the Piasa Palisades Group of the Sierra Club, headquartered in Alton, Illinois, charged the ecosystems of the Mississippi waterway rivers have been degraded by the system’s 29 locks and dams, barge traffic, pollution, and flood plain development.

“This is clearly not a sustainable project,” she said.

But the Corps’ plan was welcomed by the Midwest Area River Coalition (MARC) 2000, a diverse group of agriculture, manufacturing, labor, economic development, recreation, transportation, and shipping interests who lobbied heavily in support of the improvements to the waterway.

“It’s good news, it’s consistent with what we have been told by [the Corps] study team, it’s in the direction they were heading,” said Chris Brescia, president of MARC 2000. “It puts us in the ball game.

“Traffic from the upper Mississippi contributes to a trust fund that makes up 40 percent of its dollars, but we only see 15 percent come back for new construction. This proposal sets the stage for us to recoup the investment the industry has made for the infrastructure.

“Virtually all the locks were built in the 1930s, using 1930s technology,” Brescia said. “We are not using roads built in the 1930s, our airplanes or airports no longer rely on technology from the 1930s. It’s time to put modern locks at key locations on the river.”

“The American farmer’s competitive advantage has always hinged on efficient transportation,” said Rick Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association and chairman of MARC 2000. “If U.S. farmers are to compete successfully with foreign competitors, they must be able to deliver their commodities to overseas markets via barge transportation. And unless this system is upgraded, barge delays will continue and the cost of American farm commodities will increase.”

“For more than a decade the agriculture industry has fought for the improvement of locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We applaud the Corps for pushing forward with this effort. Farmers, ranchers, and the U.S. economy will benefit from this plan.”

U.S. agriculture depends heavily on the inland waterways to transport farm commodities to overseas markets. One-third of U.S. agricultural production is exported, and more than 60 percent of those exports depend on barge transportation through the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

A single barge can hold as much as 58 semi-trucks. Water transport is cheaper and emits up to 60 percent fewer pollutants than other forms of transport. “We spend a lot of time developing international markets for exports of our products,” noted Stallman. “We need to be able to deliver and service these markets when they’re open for business.”

Economic Development Boom
Paul Rohde, a spokesman for MARC 2000, pointed to the employment benefits of the Corps’ proposal. “Anybody that does carpentry, that is a finisher, a pile driver, a laborer, a cement mason, you’re looking at a generation’s worth of labor needed to build those locks,” Rohde said. “And the people who build the locks and dams spend their money. All those towns–Alton, Grafton, Hannibal, and farther up north–are going to benefit from not only the job creation but having more efficient river transportation for decades to come.

“The St. Louis area, including Alton, still is the second-largest inland port in the country,” Rohde said. “That’s jobs. That’s economic activity that our region desperately needs. We have an opportunity to bring good, quality, high-paying jobs into the region instead of having jobs being exported.”

John Skorburg is managing editor of Budget & Tax News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

visit the Midwest Area River Coalition 2000 Web site at http://www.marc2000.org/.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ report is available online at http://www2.mvr.usace.army.mil/umr-iwwsns/.