WASHINGTON, Aug. 3, 2016 - The fact that stakeholders are upset about the conditions of the inland waterways system is nothing new. The fact that some of those same people have some reasons to be optimistic is a more recent development.
A slippery slope of neglect and inadequate maintenance funding led to many locks and dams using equipment about 30 years past its intended 50-year projected usage schedule.
“The Corps has gone from a proactive means of doing maintenance on these facilities to a ‘fix as fails’ and somewhat to a ‘fail to fix’ scenario because their budgets continue to be restrained,” Marty Hettel, the chairman of the Inland Waterway User Board, told Agri-Pulse Monday at the La Grange Lock and Dam in Illinois. The La Grange has been deemed the lock most in need of repair and is at the top of the list for Army Corps of Engineers planned rehabilitation projects.
The Waterways Council brought a cohort of reporters to La Grange on Monday to see the visible concrete decay and archaic machinery; some of it in operation remains from the lock’s 1936 installation, and the group was advised not to trust the handrails around some parts of the lock for fear of them giving way.
Perhaps a major driving factor in the slippage of conditions can be attributed to public relations struggles surrounding the very nature of the system itself. Outside of maintenance officials and towboat crews, no one can see the sorry state of affairs used to move freight by water. By contrast, long-haul truckers share the same highways with commuters and travelers, the same people who may call their member of Congress in a fury after hitting one too many potholes.
As Thomas Heinold with the Corps Rock Island District puts it, most American citizens don’t realize how they benefit from the system. He says the inland waterway system “is originally what made this country great.”
“When we built these things out in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the most efficient system in the world at that time,” he told Agri-Pulse. “I think a generation or two has largely taken that for granted.”
The public may be taking an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the system, but Congress isn’t anymore. Recently, some major legislative victories have given a jolt to the inland waterways trust fund after shippers agreed to a 9-cent per gallon fuel tax increase to go toward infrastructure improvements. On top of that, the fund is now only on the hook for 15 percent of costs of the costly Olmsted Lock and Dam instead of the anticipated 50-50 split with the federal government thanks to some language in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014. Construction snafus have led the cost of that project to more than quadruple, eating up a sizable chunk of what the trust fund could afford to allocate for rehabilitation projects.
Hettel said it” seems like we’ve got the Congress’s ear,” but that still means it will be a while before enough shovels can go in the ground to make the desired improvements. Many locks, including La Grange, are 600-foot locks, but most of the towboats and barges that float down the river are 1,200 feet. Under many of the current configurations, those longer outfits must separate into two smaller rigs to get through the current locks, taking more time and costing shippers more money. And when those projects are appropriated, they can bid the project in one fiscal year, but must wait until the following fiscal year to actually do the work, so any projects authorized for Fiscal 2017 can’t actually be constructed until Fiscal 2018.
But the fact that construction looks like it will be happening is a step in the right direction for many in the industry and in the Corps. The current system, while in a state of disrepair, is still mostly reliable, Heinold says, but relying on 80-year-old locks with a projected 50-year life span is not a sustainable path forward.
“We’re going to have a real problem in this country if we don’t pay attention soon.”
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