Interactive map shows the cost of river lock failures

By Robbie Webber

A new interactive map shows the importance of key locks on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Illinois Rivers and outlines possible economic shocks all across the country should one or more of them fail. Although our attention is often focused on roads, rail, and runways, the U.S. river system also carries a huge amount of freight. Failures in this system affect not just the states that border these rivers, but many areas that receive goods – in particular corn, soybeans, coal, and petroleum products – from those states. In addition, exports of corn and soybean also  rely heavily on barge transport.

In a report prepared for the United Soybean Council, the Texas Transportation Institute warns that the lock and dam system on the largest U.S. rivers is, like so many other components of our transportation system, outdated and in need of urgent maintenance. It examines the consequences of a failure of one of six locks on key segments of the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, or Illinois Rivers.

The report also examines the possibilities of diverting agricultural commodities to other transportation modes and finds capacity problems in both rail and trucking options. In addition, these alternative modes would be far more expensive, directly affecting the prices of agricultural commodities and fuel supplies across the country. Impacts on congressional districts are mapped in the report, showing that lock failures in the central U.S. could ripple as far as California and Texas.

This past September, damage to a component of Lock 27 near St Louis, the busiest on the Mississippi, closed the lock for five days and had an estimated cost of $2.4 million per day. The damage was attributed partially to the summer drought, which also narrowed the river and delayed traffic farther south. This shutdown prompted six senators to write to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee asking for support in correcting the maintenance backlog.

Although the inland river system is essential to transportation and commerce – and is economically and energy efficient compared to other modes – funds have been lacking for years to maintain infrastructure to keep traffic moving. However, unlike highway maintenance, a failure of a lock on a major river is capable of stopping all traffic, and rerouting is significantly more difficult and costly.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.