Barges Sit for Hours Behind Locks That May Take Decades to Replace

NY Times
4 February 2015
By Ron Nixon

Randy Holt piloting the boat Bill Berry out of the lock system at Kentucky Lock and Dam near Paducah, Ky., last month. Credit Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

PADUCAH, Ky. — On a recent winter morning, Randy Holt piloted the boat Bill Berry as it pushed a group of barges nearly as long as two football fields steadily down the Tennessee River to the Kentucky Lock and Dam here. But then Mr. Holt had to wait several hours at what has become a major choke point as boats moved one at a time through the narrow, cracked, 70-year-old lock.

“Sometimes, we get here in the mornings and won’t leave until late into the night,” Mr. Holt said.

Locks are intended to make it easy for the Bill Berry and barges, with their cargoes of grain, coal and oil, to navigate the uneven waters of the Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio Rivers.

But largely out of sight of most Americans, the locks are crumbling. There are 192 locks on 12,000 miles of river across the country; most were built in the 1930s, even earlier than Kentucky Lock and Dam, and have long outlived their life expectancy.

A result is that barges are often delayed for hours because decrepit locks have to be shut down for maintenance and repairs.

The aging systems of locks and dams on the nation’s rivers helps move the equivalent of 51 million truckloads of goods every year. Credit Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

“Few people realize the shape our locks and dams are in,” said Mike Toohey, the president and chief executive of the Waterways Council, an industry group in Washington.

President Obama has asked Congress for billions of dollars for infrastructure improvements, and last year, he signed a $12.3 billion water resources bill with money to complete construction of a major lock and dam project near Olmsted, Ill. But the president has also called for cuts in the United States Army Corps of Engineers budget, which includes money for repairs of locks and dams.

Transportation advocates say the funding is vastly insufficient to deal with the construction backlogs of locks and dams. The Corps of Engineers, which maintains most of the system, says it will take $13 billion through 2020 just to fix the decaying locks. Without the money, Corps officials say it will take until 2090 to complete all the projects.

Steve Stockton, the director of civil works at the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, said last year’s water resources bill was a good start.

“But we would need about twice as much to bring the system up to the level of repair it needs,” he said.

In the United States, the equivalent of 51 million truckloads of goods move by river each year.

The lock here at the Kentucky Dam is a major thruway for products from nearly 20 states. But over the last decade, the average delay here has grown to nearly seven hours, from less than four hours in 2004.

Because of its age, the lock has a hard time accommodating newer, larger barges. Workers have to break the barges into sections before letting them through, which increases the wait times. In the meantime, large cracks are visible in the walls of the lock.

Construction crews working on the Kentucky Lock Addition Project, which will be larger than the current lock. Credit Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

Although a new lock is under construction here, it will not be completed until 2023. But the Corps said even that completion date could be pushed back if there were delays in federal funding.

“The Corps is doing the best it can to ease the congestion, but every additional hour you have to sit at a lock waiting costs money,” said Dan Mecklenborg, a senior vice president at Ingram, the nation’s largest barge company, which owns the Bill Berry. Ingram, which moves coal and grain south down the Mississippi River and concrete and road salt north to Minnesota and Illinois, accounts for 20 percent of all barge traffic.

The delays have had the biggest effect on the agriculture and concrete industries, which depend heavily on barges to move their goods to market. Last year, several highway construction projects in Minnesota fell behind schedule because delays in Mississippi barge traffic kept companies working on the roads from receiving concrete in time.

Farmers in the upper Midwest, who say they suffer from lower grain prices because trains are crowded with lucrative oil shipments and there are not enough cars to get their crops to market in time to avoid an oversupply, now say they are having similar problems on the rivers.

American corn and soybean exports travel by barge to ports in Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans, where the grain is loaded onto ships headed for foreign markets. But because of bottlenecks at the locks, farmers say their grain sometimes gets to the ports late.

“If it continues, our customers will start looking elsewhere,” said Mike Steenhoek, the executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition in Iowa.

Fixing the locks has taken on more urgency since last year, when farmers planted record amounts of corn and soybeans, and companies like the Minnesota-based food giant Cargill and other shippers had to prepare for larger exports.

Rick Calhoun, the marine and terminal division president for Cargill, said the company could still get its products to market by using trucks or trains. But he said barges were cheaper: 15 barges can carry the same amount of cargo as 1,050 tractor-trailers or one train with 216 cars.

“We prefer that all three modes of transportation be robust in order to maintain healthy competition and keep shipping costs down,” Mr. Calhoun said. “Otherwise, there is a rise in price for transportation that is passed on to the consumer.”

Correction: February 7, 2015 - A picture caption on Thursday with an article about the repairs needed to locks along major American waterways misidentified the lock. It was the Barkley Lock, near Grand Rivers, Ky., not the Kentucky Lock near Paducah.

A version of this article appears in print on February 5, 2015, on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Barges Sit for Hours Behind Locks That May Take Decades to Replace.