Friday, March 23, 2012

What Does A Pothole In A River Look Like?

You can’t see it, but it’s REALLY big!

Most of the debate surrounding the Highway Trust Fund legislation swirling around and around the Capitol in Washington, D.C., centers on potholes in our nation’s roads and bridges, and the cost of repairing them. However, one part of the construction funded by these legislative initiatives is for other surface transportation – railroads and waterways. Waterways, in particular, continue to be the poor stepchild of surface transportation funding.

Water commerce is the quietest and most hidden aspect of the transportation of goods across our country, nearly invisible to citizens who don’t work the tugs and barges that move 550 million tons of coal, grain, refined petroleum products and other goods annually up and down the rivers of our huge nation. Navigability of the nation’s waterways is kept open by means of more than 200 locks and dams built, maintained and operated by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. And, while a pothole in the highway can be driven around by a lane change and travel of only several hundred feet out of a truck’s chosen route, shutting down a single river lock can put hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo on the roads or rails to travel many hundreds of miles out of the way, at a considerable additional cost in both dollars and time.

Rather than funding lock and dam construction and repairs by appropriating sufficient funds to complete approved projects once they are begun, Congress parcels out money to the Corps of Engineers a year at a time, and there is never enough to pay for the work already started, much less badly needed projects on the drawing boards. The result is that each job ends up costing a lot more than originally estimated, because work crews are repeatedly mobilized and demobilized, and materials are bought in small batches a year at a time, at annually increasing prices. Numbers tell the tale: Congress spends only about $170 million annually on lock and dam construction and repairs, against the immediate need for $8 billion of work. At that rate the required projects will be completed in 47 years if prices never go up. The designed useful life of a lock and dam project is 50 years. Do the math.

Take a single example: there are 23 locks and dams on the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Cairo, where it flows into the Mississippi. About 90 million tons of cargo moves up and down this stretch of water each year. In order to open up a choke point near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi, the Corps of Engineers proposed, and in 1988 Congress approved, construction of a dam and two new locks at Olmsted, Illinois. At the time the projected cost of construction was $775 million. However, due to intermittent and piecemeal funding, the cost will probably be more like $3.1 billion when the job is finished in about 2024.

Meanwhile, every air conditioning season, electric power utilities up and down this stretch of river pray that the 13 million tons of coal delivered to them by water every year aren’t diverted by failure of one or more of the 80 year old smaller locks Olmsted is slated to replace.  Since over 76% of their coal is delivered on river barges, these power plants would have to raise rates and face brownouts if required to pay more to ship the fuel by road and rail, and suffer the attendant delivery delays.

Meanwhile, other badly needed lock and dam repair projects see their funding sucked dry by the escalating needs of the Olmsted job. Shippers and barge lines have offered to have the diesel fuel tax they pay to the federal government increased to $0.29 per gallon, to pay for more of the work sooner, but Congress continues to refuse any and all tax increases – even those taxpayers beg for – because it would have to match the increased tax revenue dollar for dollar out of general revenues under current Trust Fund formulas, and the bill would never get through the “no new taxes” House.

So, the next time you want to see what a pothole in a river looks like, take a drive down to Olmsted and sneak a peek at an unfinished lock and dam construction project.
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