Study says invest in maintenance of locks and dams

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The U.S. shipping industry received a reminder of how much a lock closure can cost when Lock 27 on the Mississippi River closed for five days this fall due to emergency repairs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that an unscheduled closure at this lock can cost up to $2.8 million per day. Emergency fixes and unscheduled maintenance cost shippers and those using shippers to move products. Additionally, the inadequacies of the aging U.S. lock and dam system can add burden, time and costs due to inefficiencies.

A recent study funded by the United Soybean Board’s (USB’s) Global Opportunities program in coordination with the Soy Transportation Coalition examined these inefficiencies and potential maintenance solutions for this vital part of U.S. infrastructure. The U.S. inland waterways serve as important and economical routes to transport U.S. soy to global markets. Fifty-nine percent of total 2011 soybean exports passed through Mississippi River ports in southern Louisiana. Of those soybeans, 89 percent passed through the locks on U.S. inland waterways on the way to the ports.

“We’re shipping more than half of our soybeans out of this country to foreign markets,” says Dale Profit, soybean farmer and USB farmer-leader from Van Wert, Ohio. “To get those beans to the end user as efficiently as we can and remain competitive in the world market, we need a properly maintained waterway system that meets our needs.”

One approach recommended in the study would be to place greater emphasis on maintenance, rather than new construction, of the current lock and dam system, except in certain circumstances. Such an approach could take several forms, including minimal routine and preventative maintenance (this is also called a “fix as fails” strategy) or some routine and preventative maintenance.

The ideal situation would include providing regular routine maintenance and major rehabilitation. Currently it is estimated that within the next 50 years, major rehabilitation will be needed at all 171 U.S. lock sites.

“The lock and dam system is the backbone for transporting soybeans and grain in this country,” adds Profit. “It’s important that this infrastructure be properly maintained.”


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