In the News

Infrastructure Repairs Lead To Delays Across The South

April 5, 2024   The Waterways Journal

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While repair work at Demopolis Lock on the Tombigbee River in Alabama continues to march steadily toward a late-May reopening, operators on the Black Warrior River and farther south on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) are facing additional challenges from closed or restricted infrastructure.


The Norfolk Southern Railroad bridge at Mile 267.8 on the Black Warrior River, east of Eutaw, Ala., incurred damage to its lifting machinery the weekend of March 30-31. In its lowered position, the bridge offers a vertical clearance of only 22.8 feet at normal pool elevation.

The Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association hosted a conference call April 2, during which maritime industry representatives heard from Norfolk Southern regarding repair plans and a proposed schedule for lifting the bridge to allow vessels to pass. Norfolk Southern initially proposed a once-per-day opening to last around an hour. With four vessels in the vicinity, the bridge opened about noon April 2, with the queue cleared in about an hour.


In discussing the temporary bridge lift schedule, which will last an estimated four to six weeks, Tim Parker III, president and CEO of Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based Parker Towing Company, asked that the length of opening be based on need rather than time.


“Certainly, at the very least, we’ve got to clear the queue every day,” Parker said.


After about a day of discussions and planning—and after seeing how temporary repairs were working—the U.S. Coast Guard and Norfolk Southern announced an agreement to open the bridge for vessel traffic to pass twice daily, seven days a week. The bridge will be open between 9 and 11 a.m. and from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. each day.


“Mariners are requested to provide the bridge tender with a one-hour notification prior to arriving at the bridge,” the Mobile Engineer District stated in Navigation Bulletin 24-37. “This limited schedule is expected to continue for the next six weeks.”

According to Pat Weldon with Norfolk Southern, the railroad estimates closing the bridge for between 24 and 48 hours to make more permanent repairs.


“If we have the ability to use a crane, it would speed construction of that repair,” Weldon said. “We all think we would be closer to that 24-hour time period to make that repair versus a more traditional hoisting rigging and constructing a gantry-style crane in the draw house.”

Wynne Fuller, president of the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association, asked industry leaders to reach out to Norfolk Southern if any of them are aware of a barge-mounted crane available to do the repair work. With Demopolis Lock closed to navigation, such a crane would have to come from either the upper end of the Black Warrior River or the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

GIWW Closures

In Louisiana on the GIWW, operators are dealing with delays from a pair of closures as well. The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) Lock, which is the lone linkage between the Mississippi River and western GIWW and the eastern reaches of the GIWW, closed to navigation March 30 due to cracks in the steel and broken welds on the upper hinge of the river-side lower gate. The New Orleans Engineer District mobilized a crane to the site and set to work fabricating and installing new components with its own personnel.

“We’re also doing detailed inspections of all the gates concurrently,” said Vic Landry, the New Orleans District’s GIWW project manager. “Everything’s progressing along quite well now. It’s all falling into place.”


Landry said he’s aware, not only of the impact of the closure at Demopolis Lock, but also of crucial commodities like petrochemicals and jet fuel that move east and west along the GIWW. At press time, there were about 105 tows in the queue at IHNC.

“I know it’s a concern,” Landry said. “With limited access for people over there, we’re definitely pushing this to get commodities moving east again.”


Landry initially estimated IHNC would reopen Sunday, April 7. His team beat that estimate by a day, with the lock reopening to navigation at 11 a.m. April 6. Landry estimated it will take about four or five days to clear the queue.


Port Allen Lock on the GIWW alternate route in Baton Rouge, La., is also closed to navigation following a failure of the steel anchorage of one of the gates. To conduct that repair, the New Orleans District is borrowing Vicksburg District’s “Big Juicy” crane to take the load off the gate. Repair crews will remove the damaged anchorage and all concrete involved, then install all-new components. The Corps expects Port Allen to reopen to navigation by April 24.


Landry said, while these types of unscheduled closures are unfortunate, they’re not to be unexpected.

“IHNC is 101 years old, and Port Allen is 63 years old,” he said. “It’s aging infrastructure and the issues that come along with it.”


Demopolis Update

Back in rural Alabama, Mobile District officials are reporting good progress to the extensive repair project at Demopolis Lock, which incurred an upper miter sill failure on January 16. Currently, repair contractors from R&D Maintenance and J.F. Brennan Company are installing concrete forms into the lock chamber, along with steel bulkheads. Meanwhile, on April 2 Corps officials, working alongside representatives from the nearby Ready Mix concrete plant, conducted mix tests to verify design calculations and delivery processes.

Mobile District officials anticipate concrete pours around April 18, with the target date for reopening the lock to navigation still set at May 30.


Nelson Sanchez, chief of operations for the Mobile District, said the steady progress of the work at Demopolis would not have been possible without the contractors at the site and the Corps team working together.


“I want to give a shoutout to R&D and Brennan and our Corps of Engineers floating plant and the Corps of Engineers brain trust behind the scenes,” Sanchez said. “It’s been remarkable watching them and what they’re doing to get us moving. Their urgency, as well as their commitment to safety and quality on this repair.”


Sanchez also recognized the Tennessee Valley Authority and Parker Towing Company for their willingness to help in the early days of the closure.


“It’s big one big effort by everyone,” Sanchez said. “A team effort is always the best.”