The inland waterways—as a mode of commerce—are efficient, good for the environment, and reduce costs for businesses and consumers. However, this navigation system can’t be taken for granted. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District has assigned failing grades to significant features of the current system that makes river commerce possible along the Ohio River.
On Oct. 20, Louisville District Commander Col. Keith Landry testified before the Kentucky Waterways Subcommittee, an interim subcommittee of the Kentucky General Assembly’s Transportation Committee that was organized to support barge transportation on Kentucky waterways.
The presentation relayed the tremendous economic impact of barge transportation and asserted the importance of prioritizing repairs and replacement of the aging navigation infrastructure within the Ohio River system. Committee members expressed appreciation of LRL’s efforts to inform the committee, which is concerned that the public does not have an understanding of the significance of the navigation infrastructure.
Louisville District and the civil works mission
The Louisville District’s civil works mission is immense, encompassing nearly 76,000 square miles of the lower Ohio River Basin. This includes the Ohio River (from river mile 438 at Foster, Ky., to river mile 981 at Cairo, Ill.) and its tributaries.
Primary Corps of Engineers civil works services include flood damage reduction, navigation, regulatory activities, water supply, water quality, hydropower, environmental conservation and enhancement, recreation, and emergency response. Landry’s testimony focused on the navigation portion of the Corps’ mission and the locks and dams sustaining inland waterways commerce.
Locks and dams
Louisville District employees operate eight navigation dams and 16 lock chambers located along the Ohio River, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Three of Kentucky’s locks are among the top five busiest in the nation, and five of the state’s locks are among the top ten. The Commonwealth touches 664 miles of the Ohio River.
There are 20 navigation lock and dam systems along the Ohio River. Those not within the Louisville District’s jurisdiction extend into either the Huntington (W.Va.) District or the Pittsburgh District.
The Ohio River navigation system is a national asset, employing more than 100,000 workers and generating $11.5 billion in business activity and another $3 billion in tax revenue. The system provides a low-cost mode of transportation for the bulk commodities of industry, agriculture and commerce. About 148 million tons of coal and another 122 million tons of petroleum products, chemicals, grains and stone pass over the Ohio annually.
The Ohio River presents an efficient way to do business, while reducing the number of trucks on the nation’s highways. On a single gallon of fuel, one ton of freight can travel at least 589 miles on the river, 65 miles on the highway, or 425 miles via rail car, according to a Texas Transportation Institute study. These savings reduce operating costs of businesses and are eventually passed down to the consumer in the form of cheaper prices.
"A dependable and efficient inland waterways navigation system is a critical component of a healthy economy," said Landry. "A healthy economy—within the commonwealth, the region and the nation—is critical to national security."
A dependable and efficient inland waterways system is also good for the environment. Fourteen million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions would’ve made their way into the environment had trucks been used instead of barges.
An aging infrastructure
The benefits realized by a dependable and efficient inland waterways system can’t be taken for granted. Many of the lock and dam systems along the Ohio River need repairs, but the agency’s efforts to repair and replace aging infrastructure are limited. Limited funding causes industry, the Corps, and Congress to evaluate locks and dams to determine where to direct the millions—and sometimes billions—of dollars to system repairs and replacement.
The recent miter gate failure at Markland Locks and Dam is an example of what can happen when a lock shuts down. On Sept. 27, a miter gate leaf became completely dislodged and fell into the 1,200-foot lock. The other leaf hung dangerously until Corps workers stabilized it with cables.
The miter gate at Markland is 50 years old, the structure’s projected life cycle. It was scheduled to be replaced December 2010. An auxiliary 600-foot lock was open within 48 hours of the failure. But 15-barge tows locking through the smaller lock can only lock through half their load at one time, turning a one-hour lock into more than a two-hour process. Such delays cost businesses, the towing industry, power plants and consumers millions in lost revenue and higher prices for commodities and energy and other products. A complete shutdown of the river would undoubtedly cause more harm.
"The failure of Markland is a symptom of a much broader disease," Vice President of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications for Jefferson Commercial Lines Inc. David Parker told Business First in an Oct. 23 interview following the gate failure. "What I mean by that is that the system is aging generally, while the demands on the system are growing generally. The challenge to the system has never been more acute."
Rep. Geoff Davis, 4th District, conveyed the importance of the inland waterways system in a press conference two days after the failure.
"The river is a great silent servant," he said.
How to meet infrastructure re-investment goals
Currently, the Corps of Engineers’ headquarters is engaged in trying to address infrastructure reinvestment. In doing so, the Corps recognizes the following goals:
1) Create a long term infrastructure investment plan (20 + years)
2) Establish national criteria for ranking projects
3) Outline a prioritized list of projects to receive capital improvements
4) Identify the realistic investment level required to maintain reliable infrastructure system
5) Implement project delivery process improvements to ensure projects are completed on time and within budget
6) Recommend revenue sources
7) Develop implementation guidance for sustainment of the investment plan
To meet these goals, Landry suggested establishing an objective coalition of subject matter experts to advise federal and state officials on a frequent basis.
"By bringing together the expertise and resources of all appropriate federal, state and local agencies, we can solve problems at the proper scale, integrate solutions, and leverage funds," Landry said. "The Louisville District would be happy to provide subject matter expertise to the subcommittee anytime, or establish a plan to communicate with the subcommittee on a quarterly or annual basis. Frequent communication is the basis for a productive partnership."