Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Critical System of Locks and Dams Is Aging, but There's Little Money for Repairs

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Critical System of Locks and Dams Is Aging, but There's Little Money for Repairs

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS 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 river.

A five-year, $52.9 million project to rehabilitate the lock, through which more than 60 million tons of cargo passes each year, is nearly complete. The Army Corps of Engineers has replaced gates on both the main and auxiliary locks, upgraded valves, 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-based AEP River Operations, one of the nation's largest barge companies.

Major lock and dam work is paid for half 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 in the gaping maw of the Olmsted Dam. …

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