Time for Action on Lock and Dam Modernization

Investment in Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers has not kept pace with needs of transportation sector.

Published on: Nov 30, 2011

A roundtable to discuss the importance of upgrading Upper Mississippi and Illinois River locks and dams was held in Quincy, Ill. this week. The roundtable was a follow-up to an earlier meeting held in conjunction with the 9th Tri-State Development Summit in October. During that meeting, the group, which consists of representatives from private companies as well as agriculture, waterways and transportation associations, decided it was time to move beyond studies and analysis and into action.

While modernization of locks and dams is a goal, Executive Director of the Soy Transportation Council Mike Steenhoek says maintaining what we already have is a priority.

"Step one is to make sure that the money we do have appropriated, the millions of dollars paid into the Inland Waterways trust fund are efficiently used," Steenhoek said. "Right now there is a lot of cost overruns for various projects, so there's a lot of evidence that the government is not a good steward of the money that's currently available to it so that's step one."

Step two according to Steenhoek is to improve the condition of the locks. Illinois farmer Phil Bradshaw says the group agreed that education is going to be key.

"We need to educate people on the fact that this is very important," Bradshaw said. "Everybody's lives along 150 miles in both ways of the river, their lives are affected some way or another by the movement of freight or cargo on the rivers."

Bradshaw says the ultimate goal is to educate the public of the importance of the waterways transportation system in hopes citizens will then communicate with their Representatives in Washington D.C.

"This is an issue – if a lock and dam breaks, goes down, we won't be able to bring coal up the river, we won't have the coal to be able to generate some of our utilities," Bradshaw said. "We won't be able to sell the soybeans and the corn on the agriculture side of it down the river that gives us the largest balance of trade of any commodity that we sell in the United States, and we won't be able to do those things. What impact is that going to have on their life and their living standard?"

The country's inland navigation system moves more than a billion tons of domestic commerce valued at more than $300 billion per year. This includes about 60% of all grain exports. To let candidates for political office know that farmers and their allies are paying attention to their positions on funding for essential lock and dam improvements along the Mississippi River, representatives from commodity organizations, shippers, barge operators and the Waterways Council have decided to move forward in the creation of a structured plan that places an emphasis on expressed goals. 

The Waterways Council was selected to lead this new effort. Now, WCI will begin to review an action proposal by former Illinois Congressman Jerry Weller, of the U.S. Strategies Corporation, and Bradshaw. 

National Corn Growers Association President Garry Niemeyer says by acting together, they can magnify their voices, and thus their effectiveness, exponentially.  He says achieving the goal is not only important for farmers and shippers, but the nation as a whole will benefit from the job creation and shipping efficiencies this project would generate.

Investment in the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterways has not kept pace with the needs of the transportation sector.  The lock system is approaching 80 years old and cannot accommodate modern barging practices that use 1,100 foot barge-tows.  Many of the locks are only 600 feet long, forcing barges to use the time-consuming and dangerous double-locking procedure.