Infrastructure in the United States is “degrading and underperforming,” according to Col. Mark Deschenes, commander and district engineer of the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ Rock Island District.
Infrastructure in the United States is “degrading and underperforming,” according to Col. Mark Deschenes, commander and district engineer of the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ Rock Island District. And while Deschenes included highways and railways in that assessment, at the forefront of his infrastructure concerns are the 20 locks and dams along the upper section of the Mississippi River.
“Doom’s Day is not imminent, but the clock is ticking,” Deschenes told those in attendance Wednesday at the 10th Tri-State Development Summit, which was hosted by Hannibal-LaGrange University.
Regarding the river’s navigation system, Deschenes reported not much has changed.
“It’s reliability is suffering a bit,” he said, explaining the number of periods when locks are out of commission for unplanned reasons is increasing.
Deschenes suggested that could be a reason why barge traffic on the river has been slowly declining.
“I think it’s probably fair to say the tenuous reliability of the system, although we’ve been able to be fairly consistent, is probably concerning to some people,” he said.
Even when the locks are working perfectly, a 600-foot lock can cause costly delays.
“Time is money and when it comes to that aspect, clearly that is a frustration,” said Deschenes. “That is a cost of doing business to the barge industry and shippers, and they have to consider that. It would be more efficient for them if they didn’t have to ‘break barge.’”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was upbeat when discussing his state on Wednesday. However, his demeanor changed when he turned to the topic of the river’s lock-and-dam system and its potential impact on that state’s ability to get goods to market.
“The Mississippi River is a vital connection to the global market,” he said. “But the locks and dams are under-resourced and decades past their design life.”
Branstad expressed reluctance on waiting for the federal government to address the situation and proposed a regional collaboration.
According to Deschenes, $100 million is invested annually in the lock-and-dam system. And while that is an impressive figure, the colonel said it is “one-third” of what is needed, which results in delayed maintenance. Deschenes estimates the amount of backed up maintenance now totals in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Many are hopeful that the Water Resources (Reform) Development Act (WRDA), which is currently in a Washington, D.C., conference committee, will bring financial relief. But Deschenes said that may not be the case.
“WRDA won’t deliver a check to the Rock Island District directly,” he said, explaining that currently a funding priority is the Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River.
Deschenes told Summit attendees that what happens on the river will impact future economic development in the mid-America.
“The federal government, and the United States Corps of Engineers specifically, has a very important collaborative partnership in moving forward in economic development, especially as it pertains to our mission to maintain a reliable navigation channel on the upper Mississippi River and to engage in our programs of flood risk mitigation which also has a very direct impact to the ability for the economic development in the region,” he said.