The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers talked plans for a potential $3.6 billion revamp of the upper Mississippi River’s lock navigation system during a meeting Tuesday in Dubuque.
Scott Whitney, the project management chief of the Corps’ Rock Island District, said the final study regarding the project won’t be public until August. Still, he described the scope of the project – and the study – as “huge.”
Through the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, the corps would construct five new, 1,200-foot locks on the Mississippi – all of which would be located south of Dubuque – and two on the Illinois River.
The program also suggests smaller improvements, like adding mooring systems and switchboats at lower locks.
The information was presented to members of the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association, a group of state officials appointed by the governors of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Missouri. The meeting took place at Grand River Center in Dubuque.
The goal of the project is to mitigate costly delays of barges when they reach the aging lock systems.
When the lock structures, which include facilities in Dubuque, Guttenberg and Bellevue in northeast Iowa, were built in the 1930s and 1940s, they met the tow size needs of the day. Each is 600 feet long.
However, the amount of freight being towed has increased dramatically in the ensuing years. That means it takes twice as long for tows of today to make it through a lock.
“It can take up to two hours to get through,” Whitney said. “Think about all the fuel that takes to keep running while you’re backed up. Think of all of the people you have to pay.”
Teri Goodmann, Dubuque’s assistant city manager, said she has tracked the project for many years. While Lock and Dam No. 11 at Dubuque isn’t one set to be replaced, the work downriver likely would benefit agricultural producers in the immediate area, she said.
Whitney said his team is working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory at the University of Tennessee to tackle the 50-year economic impact of the NESP project.
“There are a lot of uncertainties looking 50 years in the future,” he said. “What trade is going to be in China, what is the demand for corn – all of that is what you have to look at.”
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense – longtime skeptics of the project – attended the meeting. He pointed out that ongoing trade wars will have impacts on markets moving forward as well.
“As far as trade embargoes and the future forecasts in grain, there’s many different scenarios,” Whitney agreed. “An embargo, a tariff, can turn that into a whole different trajectory.”
The NESP project has had a difficult road, being essentially suspended in 2011 due to a lack of federal funding, according to the corps’ Rock Island District website.
Whitney said the project’s future likely will come down to the benefit-cost ratio.