It’s easy to overlook American waterways when thinking about or discussing our shipping infrastructure. Pipelines are in the news, shipping trucks are on the highway next to us. But America’s waterways, our locks system, are used to move billions of tons of commodities to market every single year, making up a huge portion of our exports. Unfortunately, as was highlighted during President Trump’s recent visit to Cincinnati, America’s waterways infrastructure hasn’t seen the investment necessary to support its growth in the 21st century.
Most of these locks – used as elevators of sorts to help ships navigate uneven and inconsistent water levels – were built more than fifty years ago, and haven’t seen upgrades since. Because of this, 80 percent of all locks that saw commercial traffic in 2016 experienced an unexpected outage. That number was up from 71% in 1993, showing that not only are these vital shipping lanes failing at an outrageous rate, but they’re also getting worse.
“If we have a barge stopped on the Upper Mississippi…commodities sit there until the problem is fixed,” says Rick Calhoun, president of Cargill Carriers, the Minnetonka, Minn.-based barge operator for the largest U.S. agricultural company by sales. “There’s no detours, there’s no way to do much but wait. And waiting costs a lot of money.”
Ensuring that our waterways get the attention they need ought to be a priority as the infrastructure discussion continues to progress in Washington.