Some 63 Locks Face Reductions in Service

Capitol Currents
3 August 2012
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Corps of Engineers Districts have begun implementing a cost-saving policy to reduce hours of service at inland navigation locks with less than 1,000 annual commercial lockages.  Only locks with that number, or more, lockages in 2010 will still be operated 24 hours (or three shifts) a day seven days a week.

Inland waterways locks handling between 500 and 1,000 commercial lockages per year will be in service for only two shifts per day, according to the new policy.  Locks recording between 100 and 500 commercial lockages per year will operate with only one daily shift.  Those locks with less than 100 annual lockages will have future service only by appointment (“scheduled service”) or face closure.

According to Institute for Water Resources lock data, approximately 63 navigation locks on the inland waterways system face reduced hours or possible termination of service.  Most are on the Allegheny, Kaskaskia, and Ouachita Waterways as well as the upper reaches of the Cumberland, Monongahela, Allegheny and Mississippi River systems.  According to one report, 38 of the affected locks already have reduced hours of service.

WCI, AWO Urge Locks Be Separately Appraised

WCI has joined the American Waterways Operators (AWO) in pledging to work with the Corps of Engineers to help reduce the cost of operating navigation locks on the inland system but with more realistic criteria.  “We urge that the needs of each waterway segment be separately evaluated in consultation with the users of that segment to determine if there are better ways to control... operating costs without transferring costs to the users in the form of delays or other inefficiencies,” the organizations said in a joint statement.

WCI and AWO cautioned against a “one size fits all” approach due to “the unique circumstances of each waterway and potentially each lock on each waterway.”  If ways are found “to save money by reducing locking hours without impairing waterways efficiency,” the groups said they would “welcome the opportunity to cooperate with the Corps” in addressing this issue.

In implementing reduced hours of service at so-called low-use locks – a policy intended to stretch scarce O&M funds – Corps officials have asked each of its Districts to meet with stakeholders before instituting the proposed reductions.  Some stakeholders have already pointed out that tonnage passing through a lock is only one measure of its economic significance.  The dollar value of that commerce is another important factor which is not presently considered, and neither is the number of workers (and their payrolls) associated with the production of these cargoes.

Ton-Mile Metric Faulted as Performance Measure

“Tonnage or ton-miles, standing alone, do not tell us much at all about a port or waterway.”  So Matt Woodruff, WCI’s chairman, who is director-government affairs of Kirby Corp., told a recent Transportation Research Board conference on modal performance measures.

“A performance measure that does not consider value is not a valid measure,” he said.  “By value, I mean, without limitation, the value of the cargo and the economic impact of that tonnage on both that area and the nation, including the jobs it provides both directly and indirectly.”

 “Something else a ton or ton-mile metric fails to measure is the availability of alternative means of moving the cargo, if they exist, and their cost.  In some cases... there simply is no alternative... Another fallacy of a ton-mile measurement is that it is biased against short waterways” like Chocolate Bayou near Houston, which is only 13.4 miles long but home to three chemical plants.  That bayou, he said, “doesn’t generate much in the way of ton-miles, but it provides thousands of jobs in those plants that would go away without the waterway.”

Overlooked values.  “Finally, Mr. Woodruff said, “the ton-mile metric fails to give any consideration at all to the non-transportation values of our waterways.  Some waterway segments provide hydropower, recreation, municipal and industrial water supply, environmental benefits, flood damage reduction and irrigation.

“Shouldn’t we consider these values,” he asked, “as we weigh the merits of investing in our waterways?”