EDITORIAL: Time to invest in lock-and-dam system

La Crosse Tribune

Feb. 25–With pothole season upon us and the White House talking about increasing infrastructure funding, let’s remember a huge infrastructure need that we rarely consider.

Even though we call it America’s Main Street, we don’t invest enough in the infrastructure that keeps commerce flowing on the Mississippi River.

As Tribune reporter Chris Hubbuch recently reported, a new study shows the potential consequences of failing to make a significant investment in an aging lock-and-dam system.

And, the financial impact of a failure on the Mississippi in the Upper Midwest — and the stress that it would put on roads and rail service — could be devastating.

Consider that the locks and dams between Winona and La Crosse are more than 80 years old.

Now, consider what would happen during a nine-month shipping season if commercial navigation of the river were shut down because a lock failed in the Upper Midwest.

In Winona, shippers would have to find a way to move 1.4 million tons by truck or rail.

In La Crosse, shippers would have to move 500,000 tons.

Remember that a single 15-barge tow can move the same amount as two trains or 1,000 trucks.

Understand that the study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers was funded by a 10-state freight coalition that plans for transportation infrastructure needs. And, this study assumed more of the shipping burden would fall on trucks than previous studies, which assumed a heavier burden on rail traffic.

Using the study’s methodology, we would see 190 additional trucks traveling Interstate 90 in Wisconsin as a result of a river stoppage.

The study estimates nearly 600 more trucks daily on Hwy. 52 through southern Minnesota into Iowa.

That extra truck travel would cause an estimated $29 million damage to pavement, according to the study.

The lock-and-dam system continues to serve us well — and reliably. Bryan Peterson, navigation business line manager for the St. Paul District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, points out that the Mississippi has been open for commerce about 99 percent of the time during shipping season during the past five years.

And, when there’s a problem, it’s rarely with the locks and dams.

But, the corps has estimated we’ll need $1 billion to fix the problems we’ve delayed for maintaining the locks and dams on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers — most of which are vintage 1930s.

And the lead researcher on the study, Ernest Perry, stresses that a failure with one transportation system will cause tremendous hardship on other systems.

For most of us, the aging lock-and-dam system isn’t something we see or think about. It doesn’t jar us like driving over a pothole on La Crosse Street, for instance.

But, there’s an overwhelming need to increase awareness and funding for our lock-and-dam system — especially a problem would spill into other parts of our daily traffic.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.