Brandon Phillips stood behind the controls of the Sierra Dawn in late October, adjusting the control sticks to steer the twin screw towboat up the Mississippi River.
The nearly 50-year-old boat, which had departed days earlier from St. Louis, crawled upstream, pushing a nearly 1,000-foot barge of fertilizer. Later that evening, the Sierra Dawn and its crew would navigate Dubuque’s Lock and Dam 11 and continue north toward its destination in St. Paul, Minn.
As a boat pilot with American River Transportation Co., or ARTCo, Phillips knows the ins and outs of the Upper Mississippi Inland Waterway’s 27 locks and dams. Each is unique, but all but one is at least 60 years old. Twenty-four of them are at least 70 years old.
The Upper Mississippi Inland Waterway — UMIW — system is old, in need of upgrades and undersized by today’s tow size, making navigation by boats such as the Sierra Dawn challenging, inefficient and unsafe.
“These locks, from my understanding, were only intended to last 50 years,” Phillips said. “I don’t know how many people that I’ve talked to that don’t have any clue about what kind of condition they’re in.”
An aging infrastructure
One day later and nearly 100 miles downstream of Dubuque, Allen Marshall, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman, watched as the John R. Operle inched into Lock and Dam 15 at the Rock Island Arsenal on the Illinois side of the river.
The Upper Mississippi waterway is part of the nation’s 12,000 miles of commercially used inland waterways. The UMIW includes 27 locks — a fixed chamber that raises or lowers water depth to allow for boat navigation — across 750 miles of the Mississippi, from Minneapolis to St. Louis.
Built to transport products in and out of the American Midwest, the core of the system was constructed in a span of a few years during the nation’s New Deal-era construction boom in the 1930s.
“When it was built 70 to 80 years ago, coming out of the Great Depression ... it was maybe one of the single greatest ideas that a generation before us ever had,” said Chris Boerm, president of ADM Transportation, which operates the third-largest covered hopper barge line in North America through ARTCo.
The Army Corps maintains and manages the lock and dam system. While repairs and upgrades have taken place, cracks in the infrastructure have been showing for years, Marshall said.
More than 80 years of traffic, barge impacts, freeze-and-thaw cycles and flooding events have taken a toll on the locks and dams along the Mississippi.
“You’re looking at basically 90-year-old concrete,” Marshall said, looking down on Lock and Dam 15 from the Rock Island Arsenal’s visitor center. “The age of the infrastructure is definitely a challenge.
“I think we’ve neglected this and kicked the can down the road for far too long.”
- Debra Calhoun, senior vice president of the Waterways Council
“I know for a fact that our maintenance guys do an incredible job at keeping it operational, but they’ll tell you each year it’s becoming a little bit more challenging.”
The Rock Island lock’s concrete guide wall had deteriorated so much that a portion was demolished last year to prevent it from falling into the channel, Marshall recalled.
Work is underway to fix the wall, but Marshall said construction — which takes place in the winter months when the lock closes down — is expected to take two years.
Up and down the Mississippi, steady deterioration has created “unacceptable and unsafe conditions” and can cause delays to shipments, Samuel Hiscocks, freight coordinator with the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of System Planning, wrote in an email.
Degradation of the system has not gone unnoticed. In early 2017, the Iowa governor’s office declared the locks and dams along the Mississippi River as Iowa’s single greatest infrastructure need.
An economic driver
ADM Transportation’s Boerm described the nation’s lock and dam system as the backbone of the country’s economy, which connects Midwestern industries such as agriculture to the rest of the world.
“What keeps the U.S. competitive, versus the rest of the world and the global market, is the efficiency and cost effectiveness of shipping grain via the locks and dams system,” he said. “It is the difference in keeping jobs and keeping agriculture strong in the United States, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Iowa, the nation’s No. 1 producer of corn and pork and second in the country in soybeans, exported more than $13 billion in 2017, and “much of it relied on the river system to get to market,” Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, said in an email.
She added that 60 percent of the nation’s exported grain travels along the waterways to the Gulf of Mexico.
The entire inland waterways system transports more than
$229 billion annually in cargo, supports more than 270,000 jobs and generates nearly $30 billion in economic activity, Durham said.
But that system has grown old and no longer meets modern demands, said Debra Calhoun, senior vice president of the Waterways Council, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying and education organization aimed at providing a modern, efficient and reliable inland waterways system.
Most of the locks along the Upper Mississippi are 600 feet long, which is too small for modern tow lengths. To navigate the undersized locks, crews have to split their tows to send them through the system. The entire process can take upward of an hour- and-a-half or more, depending on the crew’s experience and equipment.
“We often say we are moving 21st century export volumes and building- block commodities for our economy for use here domestically and also for international export, but we’re doing it on Model-T Fords,” Calhoun said.
Deterioration also can cause delays, which increase transportation costs and decrease the nation’s competitive edge over rival exports.
“Due to chronic underfunding, this aging infrastructure causes various problems, the most significant being delays to the barge industry. This is due to scheduled and unscheduled maintenance activities, as well as lockage times,” Iowa DOT’s Hiscocks said.
The nation’s inland waterways overall received a D grade in the American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. According to the report, 49 percent of water vessels experience delays across the inland waterways system.
In Iowa’s 2015 ASCE report card, the inland waterways also received a D grade. The report noted that “unexpected repairs, which hinder the use of the system often force shippers to use rail and truck transport for their goods.”
But Calhoun said that transport, which face their own infrastructure challenges and work-shortage strains, cannot carry the burden of the nation’s shipping needs alone.
Boerm said maintenance-related delays have been nuisances up to this point, but a “catastrophic” shutdown of a lock for weeks or months is a real possibility.
“The cost of running a boat is your cost per hour. So you think about it, every hour that you’re not doing something, that’s costing you money ... even an hour delay, that costs us money,” Boerm said.
“The costs are immediate and, depending on the duration, can be compounding in exponential fashion.”
But in addition to hurting transportation companies, the state’s Durham said closures on the system harm the entire economy.
“Our waterways have not received attention from a maintenance and modernization standpoint at a level commensurate with their importance to our economy. This topic is important — to our key industries, our state as a whole, and the country overall,” Durham said.
“Improving the foundational structures that move people and business forward is critical to the state’s future economic success.”
In need of investment
The federal government is responsible for the inland navigation system through the Army Corps of Engineers.
The primary funding source for the waterways system is the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which was created in 1978. Commercial carriers pay into the fund with a 29-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel. The tax is matched by federal government treasury funds.
All funds go toward new construction projects and major rehabilitation costs on inland waterways.
Calhoun said the Waterways Council was formed in the early 2000s to ensure that the federal government matched, and spent, those funds on the degrading system. At one point, the fund had reached a surplus of more than $400 million not spent on infrastructure.
“That is, in many ways, responsible for the problems that we’ve had and sort of why we’re so far behind on our particular infrastructure,” Calhoun said.
But updating or building a new lock and dam is costly, Calhoun added. A new Olmstead Lock and Dam on the Ohio River in Illinois was authorized in 1988 — estimated to cost $775 million and take about seven years.
But that project became riddled with design changes and funding issues, and Olmstead finally opened this year with a total price tag of $2.7 billion.
“So essentially every single dollar that went into that trust fund — and was matched by federal dollars — went out for one project and one project alone and that was all Olmstead,” Calhoun said. “In terms of Olmstead, this cannot be the way future projects can be managed.”
Calhoun said one positive note is the October signing by President Donald Trump — who has touted the need for nationwide infrastructure upgrades — of the latest version of the Water Resources Development Act. Previous WRDAs were passed in 2014 and 2016.
The law, which the Waterways Council publicly has supported, authorizes $3.7 billion for new Corps civil-works projects.
The hope, Calhoun said, is WRDA funds continue to chip away at nationwide needs.
But, she said, a different program, the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, could help modernize some of the inland waterways locks and dams — while also addressing environmental needs.
The navigation and sustainability program would construct seven 1,200-foot locks at some of the river’s most congested locations — Locks and Dams 20-25 on the Mississippi and the Illinois River’s La Grange and Peoria locks and dams.
The program also would put funds into conservation of the waterway ecosystem.
However, the program has failed to receive congressional approval since pre-construction and design funding was received in 2007.
The program “is a wonderful program that unfortunately has run into some roadblocks along the way,” Calhoun said.
But efforts continue.
The fiscal year 2018 Omnibus Appropriations bill — which approved nearly $400 million on lock and dam projects — also included a $1 million allocation for an updated economic impact study of the navigation and sustainability program.
Calhoun said it’s a positive step, and she hoped policymakers are coming to realize the importance of the Upper Mississippi Inland Waterway system and how much it needs attention. Other options include coalitions or local, state and federal partnerships to funnel more dollars into system repairs, she added.
“We’ve studied this thing to death. It’s time to move forward,” Calhoun said. “This is the thing that keeps the foundation of our nation strong.
“I think we’ve neglected this and kicked the can down the road for far too long.”
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