I-TEAM: Locks & dam repair bill in the billions

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Alton, Ill (WAND) – They are the backbone of the U.S. economy.  Yet, locks and dams on inland waterways are in need of billions of dollars in repairs, replacements and upgrades.

“Sixty-five percent of all the grains that are grown here in the United States come through this navigation system along the Mississippi and Illinois waterways,” Congressman Rodney Davis, (R) Illinois, told I-TEAM reporter Doug Wolfe while standing on top of the Melvin Price Locks & Dam in Alton.  “Every single budget year that we don’t address our crumbling locks and dams along the Illinois and Mississippi river is one more year it’s going to take to start building it.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers in a recent report card of infrastructure gave inland waterways a “D” grade.  Many of the nation’s locks and dams were designed to last 50 years but are now far older.  A failure by one of these could cripple the ability to move cargo and farm commodities down the Mississippi to Gulf coast export terminals.  It’s estimated $4.9 billion will be needed for the lock and dam system over the next 20 years.

“Grain, to fuel, to iron.  Just a little bit of everything,” Lock Master Allen Barnes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stated on what types of products move through the locks at Alton.  Corn, soybeans, coal and scrap metal are also frequently seen moving down river.  “Last year we locked 67-million tons of cargo through here.”

One example of how a failure in locks can temporarily paralyze shipping as harvest season progresses in Illinois.  Lock & Dam 53, built in 1928 on the Ohio River in southern Illinois, saw a hydraulic gate fail on October 1st.  By the time it was fixed tow boats and barges were backed up for 46 miles.

Lock & dam 53, along with lock & dam 52, will be replaced by the new Olmsted Lock & Dam in 2018.  When completed the project will have taken nearly 30 years to complete. 

President Donald Trump pledged a $1 trillion infrastructure investment when he was elected.  It will be up to Congress to decide if that much money will be spent and how it will be divided.

“The last administration did not prioritize this project to be included in the budget since 2011,” Congressman Davis stated.  “There really isn’t a Republican or Democrat way to build infrastructure.  There’s a right way, there’s a wrong way and we’ve got to come together.  Put politics aside and actually get something done.” 

The Melvin Price Locks & Dam are relatively modern and are undergoing updates to the electrical operating systems in the lock chambers.  Starting in January the main chamber will be down for 65 days.

“Imagine if it would be down for months.  That would just be very, very detrimental to our local economy,” Davis said.

Congress has not acted on infrastructure spending but could advance it as a separate bill or tie it to the upcoming tax reform debate.

(Story by I-TEAM reporter Doug Wolfe & photographer Andy Barker.)

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