Necessary Infrastructure Repairs Along the Illinois River

This year has been particularly difficult for the domestic barge industry battling a series of record flooding and delays compounded by the aging lock and dam infrastructure along the U.S. inland waterways.  In Illinois a majority of the locks and dams on the Illinois River were constructed as early as the 1930’s, with 90% of these operating beyond their engineered lifespan of 50 years.  Despite this aging infrastructure, roughly 91 million tons of various commodities are shipped on the Illinois inland waterways every year placing the state in the Top 10 for shipments by water, and 28 million tons are shipped on the Illinois River annually. The delays along the river are forcing shippers to utilize other modes of transportation, such as rail and truck, which effects the competitiveness of these shipments. Chad Cailteux, President of 5R Enterprises stated, “The impact of the Illinois river on local economies and transportation are always overlooked.  A significant amount of our business is done by water.  We utilize the water as a cost-effective and efficient way to transport equipment to our customers. Furthermore, the emissions impact of moving moderate to large amounts of materials by water, are far less harmful to our environment.”

While use of rail and truck is necessary, and supported by the U.S. economy, these modes are not as environmentally friendly, efficient or cost effective. The use of more on-highways trucks will also contribute to the ever-growing congestion problem, especially in hub cities like Chicago. For example, if a 20% decrease in barge traffic is equivalent to a 20% increase in Rail or On-highway Truck traffic, then those 1333 barges are equivalent to 22,000 rail cars and 88,000 trucks.

Despite current challenges, the future for those who rely on the Illinois River to transport goods will soon become a little brighter. In 2007 government funding was approved for replacements and repairs of 7 aging locks and dams in Missouri and Illinois.  After 12 years, the USACE finally announced several short-term closures from 9/21 to 10/5 for Starved Rock and Lockport. According to the USACE, the Lockport closure is on-time for completion on 10/5/2019. The repairs at Starved Rock, however, have been delayed due to heavy rains and high-water levels in the area from recent weeks. As of 10/1/2019, the USACE has not announced a new expected completion date for the Starved Rock repairs. The long-term closures will begin in summer 2020 with some projects anticipated to complete in six months. The closures are planned to occur simultaneously to minimize additional delays.  According to Lou Plucinski, President of B.L. Duke, “[t]his year, the Illinois and Upper Mississippi river closures have put significant downward pressure on the Midwest ferrous scrap markets.  The Chicago and Northwest Indiana regions have an oversupply and thus are net shippers of scrap not only to the southern U.S., but to the Ohio River Valley and export markets.  Even a temporary loss of this vital transportation artery will have a measurable impact on local demand.”  Only time will tell as to whether the additional closures will alleviate these pressures long-term and create a better infrastructure for commodity markets that rely on the Illinois River.