Executive Transportation Briefing

CQ Roll Call
9 October 2013

Roiling the Inland Waterways.

There was a regional conference earlier this week in Nashville of various stakeholders along the inland rivers — barge operators and shippers, levee groups, etc. — and word is some industry officials there were concerned that as the government shutdown lengthens, the Corps of Engineers could soon start pulling lock operators off their jobs. The issue is whether they are "excepted" workers who stay on the job or whether their service is less than critical. Until now, the Corps has always considered lockages as well as river dredging to be essential to safety of navigation along the river system, and certainly critical to a number of industries whose cargoes need to move by barge. Corps officials did not participate in the Nashville conference, as administration officials are mostly avoiding public events during the shutdown, and did not respond to queries seeking clarification about their policies. The agency has already furloughed hundreds of civil works employees need to oversee Corps-managed parks and recreation areas along with waterways, but locking so far has continued as normal.

Head-Scratcher Industry Statement.

That may be why the barge shipping group Waterways Council issued a peculiar press release Tuesday, in which the trade association simultaneously praised the Army's top civil works official and the Corps for keeping locks open, and then spent a couple of paragraphs highlighting the need to keep doing so. While the statement cheered Army Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy and the Corps for their "decision to keep the waterways open," we'd challenge you to find a record of such a decision out of Army or Corps HQ. The council then argued that keeping locks open is a critical government function for a wide range of users, including coal-burning power plants and especially for hauling the autumn grain crops now starting to move in thousands of barges. "Impacts to the public ... could be profound should the locks and dams close," the statement said. "The economic impacts to the nation could be catastrophic if our ports and waterways are no longer operating and unable to transport agricultural and other essential goods to market during this critical harvest period."

Grain Harvests Locking Through.

At the National Grain and Feed Association, President Randy Gordon noted the traditional treatment of lock workers as essential Corps employees even in times of appropriations disruptions. And he said grain barges are so far moving without disruption. He added: "That, of course, is important given that a big corn and soybean harvest is well under way, and the use of barges for transporting grain and grain products will be on the upswing. As you know, about 60 percent of U.S. grain exports typically are transported by barge via the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River system to the [New Orleans] Gulf." Upstream shipments this time of year are also important, Gordon said. Before winter closes the northernmost locks, barges are moving large volumes of fertilizer, road salt and other essential products to states in the upper Midwest.

The View From AEP.

Another big user of waterways is the utility industry, which brings in vast volumes of coal by river. Ohio-based American Electric Power runs at least 60 power plants across 11 states, and more than half burn coal. While the company maintains a working supply of coal at all such plants to keep them humming, company spokeswoman Tammy Ridout told CQ's Nathan Hurst that “any closure [of locks] would have an impact on our plants.” She also said "the government has always considered the lock and dam system critical, and we think it’s essential that they remain open.” Of course, AEP and other shippers of barge cargoes could instead move those loads by trains or truck fleets in a river disruption, but it would be at a much higher expense, require many more shipments to handle those volumes in smaller cargo vessels, and squeeze businesses’ bottom lines in the short term while hiking consumer prices down the road.