With all eyes on Europe for President Trump’s first G20 Summit this week, many Americans across the U.S. are anxiously awaiting much needed improvements here at home.
President Trump traveled to Ohio last month, as part of his planned “Infrastructure Week”. With the Ohio River as the backdrop, he delivered a major speech underlining his agenda, and bringing attention to the country’s crumbling locks and dams – which are critical to the country’s agricultural exports and a vital part of the president’s infrastructure revitalization.
“America’s infrastructure is out of date and falling apart, particularly the internal waterways that are so vital for transporting the country’s goods,” according to a White House press release.
Andy Schimpf, who has been overseeing locks on the Mississippi for 30 years as operations manager for the Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi River Project, said he’s never had more reason to be concerned about dam safety.
“We have a lot of issues here,” Schimpf said. “We have mechanical, we have electrical issues…foundation-type issues with the stability of the structure itself.”
Last year, the mechanical system on Lock 25 in Winfield, Mo., malfunctioned, shutting down river traffic for a hundred miles.
“It’s terrible to have it down,” he said. “You don’t know who it’s going to affect.”
For starters, it affects 22 million tons of cargo that passes through Lock 25 every year, traveling up and down the Mississippi through St. Louis and Chicago.
It’s exactly why the Trump administration is considering a $4.2 billion investment in Lock 25 and six other locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and wants to pour billions into upgrading locks in Ohio and Kentucky.
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, 80 percent of the nation’s locks are about to exceed their design life. Lock 25, for instance, was built in the 1930s and has never been updated.
Schimpf fears another collapse like the one at Lockport, Illinois in 2011.
“We have a number of problems out here,” said Paul Rhode from the Waterways Council, the main advocate for lock investment in the Midwest.
He said the locks are not only mechanically out of date, they are also structurally unsound.
“We need to keep the locks running,” he said. “A lot of people are dependent on the rivers for their livelihood.”
Many of the country’s locks and dams were built in the early 1900s as a way to make rivers more navigable. Some rivers, like the Mississippi, were too shallow for big barges. A lock system operates in conjunction with a dam to solve the problem. The dam pools the water, while the lock acts as an escalator, lifting and lowering boats to meet the differing water levels.
“We need a reliable lock and dam infrastructure in order to have reliable river transportation. More than 60 percent of our agricultural exports move on this river,” Rhode said as he surveyed a broad bank of the Mississippi. “A quarter of the coal we use, a quarter of the petroleum that we use in this country [moves through here.]”
Rhode said older locks like 25 are simply not long enough to accommodate today’s big barges.
“Most of the barges are 1,200 feet,” he said, pointing out that Lock 25 is only 600 feet long. “It makes things move slowly.”
So, he said, why not invest in the rivers?
“The reality is that river transportation is a vibrant industry and really a solution to the intermodal transportation challenges that we have,” he said. “It's less than half the cost of moving by rail…It's 90 percent cheaper than moving by truck, and it's the only mode of those three with the capacity to spare.”
He said rivers could be the future answer to highway congestion,
Schimpf said broken locks make the U.S. less competitive and few people know how dependable they are.
“Many people don't actually realize,” Schimpf said, “the connection they have and the reliability they have on the river system.”
A reliability, he said, that will be in jeopardy unless the locks are repaired and updated.