On a sunny Thursday morning in February, with the downtown St. Louis skyline in the background, a 74-foot-tall rectangle of steel hung over a narrow canal. A crane strong enough to hold 400 tons lowered the steel inches at a time into the water, while a man in a green vest and hard hat guided it into place by hand.
This was a big moment in the life of Lock 27, which straddles the Chain of Rocks Canal a few miles north of downtown St. Louis: the replacement of the swinging doors that will hold back the mighty Mississippi.
A five-year, $52.9 million project to rehabilitate the lock, through which more than 60 million tons of cargo pass each year, is nearly complete. The Army Corps of Engineers has replaced gates on both the main and auxiliary locks, upgraded valves and even improved the lighting. The downstream gates being installed this sunny morning are designed to last for decades, just as the ones they’re replacing did.
And that’s a good thing, because it could be decades before Lock 27 sees anything close to $52.9 million again.
The nation’s system of locks and dams, which govern traffic on the Ohio River system and the Mississippi north of St. Louis, is aging. The bill to fix it is astronomical. And there’s very little money. This has barge operators and the industries they serve warning that lock failures could cripple river traffic, and drag down the nation’s economy with it.
“You can’t maintain these facilities with the level of funding we have,” said Marty Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales at Chesterfield, Mo.-based AEP River Operations, one of the nation’s largest barge companies.
Half of major lock and dam work is paid for by the corps, and half from the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, which collects a 20-cents-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel on rivers on the lock and dam system. In fiscal 2012, that fund collected $89.2 million, which, with the corps’ match, means $178.4 million was available for lock projects.
Most of that money went straight into the gaping maw of the Olmsted Dam.
A $3.1 billion project on the Ohio River near Paducah, Ky., the rehab of the 80-year-old Olmsted gobbles up the lion’s share of lock and dam funding every year. It is costing four times as much as was budgeted when the project started in 1988. And it won’t be complete until 2024. Three more locks, with $2.2 billion in rehab costs, are lined up behind it.
“We’ve got to get this elephant Olmsted off our backs,” Hettel said.
So AEP and other barge operators have been lobbying Congress to update the trust fund – which hasn’t changed since the mid-’80s – proposing a fuel tax increase to raise more money, and changes to the funding guidelines. A bill last year in the House of Representatives would have raised the fuel tax to 26 cents, though critics noted it generated no new money for the kind of modest rehab that keeps locks running smoothly. It fizzled, and last month a new version was proposed by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., which would raise fuel taxes nine cents a gallon – generating $380 million a year – and enact protections against cost overruns. That bill is headed to a Senate committee, with barge industry support.
In the meantime, the corps is doing what it can, with projects like the one at Lock 27. Of the rehab’s $52.9 million budget, $29 million came from the 2009 stimulus package, a one-time pop of funds. Most of the rest came from the corps’ general maintenance budget.
Lock 27 — the southernmost lock on the Mississippi — is a crucial point on the river. When it closed in September for emergency repairs — a barge crashed in the auxiliary canal while the main canal was shut down for the rehab work — the economic impact of stalled barge traffic was estimated at $2.8 million a day. Keeping it operational is a big priority for the corps, said spokesman Mike Petersen.
“We can’t wait for a brand new lock,” he said. “We have to improve this.”
And they did. Those new steel doors started swinging March 1.