The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plans to scale back the hours of operation at the lock where the Kaskaskia River flows in the Mississippi River could make a logjam for an expanding barge business.
The Corps has announced hours of operation at the lock will be reduced by next month in order to meet its budget and make much-needed maintenance. The Corps has not revealed any definitive plans, said Corps operations project manager Bob Wilkins.
"We don't know specifically how it is going to work," Wilkins said. "We haven't made a final decision."
The lock at the mouth of the Kaskaskia currently operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But Wilkins said that the move comes as a result of diminishing federal funding.
"It's to save money and to get to the level where locks across the nation would operate consistently," Wilkins said "If we have 600 lockages, or between 500 and 1,000 lockages a year, we could have two shifts for 16- or 20-hour days of operation. ...Everyone would operate the same way and save dollars for the back load of maintenance items or other work. There is a growing backlog of maintenance across the nation right now on infrastructures."
But plans to reduce lock hours comes as more river-based business is flowing into Monroe, Randolph and southern St. Clair county communities along the Kaskaskia and Mississippi. The largest new enterprise is the Prairie State Energy Campus in rural Washington County, which started last December importing scrubber stone from L'Hoist North America in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., up to Kaskaskia Regional Port District 1 near New Athens. Kaskaskia Regional Port District General Manager Ed Weilbacher said that by next year, the new 1,600-megawatt, coal-fired power plant is expected to be shipping 1 million tons of the stone each year.
Weilbacher said he believes the Kaskaskia Port District is the fastest-growing inland port in the country. He said the Corps needs to consider what scaling back lock operations would do at time of increasing river commerce.
"What they don't take into account, and what we have made them aware of, is the way the lock operates is fairly efficient," Weilbacher said. "We have to have that 24-seven to operate the gate to make sure the river is at a certain level. It makes no sense to limit a tow going through when you have staff there 24-seven."
Weilbacher said that 2.2 million tons of product -- mostly grain, steel, scrap metal and fertilizer -- were shipped through the port district last year. He also said the port district provides jobs to employees who support 30 families in the region.
Wilkins said the port district's current annual budget is $1.49 million, but needs about $2.2 million to keep the lock open without interruption as well as providing maintenance and dredging along the river. He said he port is pursuing $1.9 million from next year's budget.
"We're still going to be very limited on maintenance and dredging is a tough one to be able to budget for anyone," he said. "There are so may factors that you can't control to determine what you need to do."
As the president of Southern Illinois Transfer, which provides all of the barge towing and terminal operations along the Kaskaskia, Kurt Johnson said he is concerned about how much operations will be reduced at the lock. For example, he said limited lock hours would restrict business at a new grain elevator and material distribution point that will open next year in Fayetteville, 36 miles up the Kaskaskia.
"Thirty-six miles presents a challenge to be able to count on being able to get barges up river and back out," Johnson said. "It's not a challenge when the lock is always available, but that changes when it's an eight-hour day. It's virtually impossible."
Although the Corps has not announced any specific changes yet, Johnson said he is worried about possibly scaling back daily lockages to eight hours. He said that he hopes the Corps will at least consider 16-hour shifts.
"We can live with 16 hours of operation," he said. "Right now, as the river expands operations, it really does need to be in operation 24 hours a day. It's virtually impossible to schedule for anything around weather, fog and ice or other barge traffic to the Mississippi River. There are so many aspects that impact it that it's impossible to schedule that. With a 16-hour day, we could probably make that work."
The Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, a member-based economic development organization that serves St. Clair and Madison counties, has been following this issue. Executive director Ellen Krohne said the council does not support the Corps' decision because the move seems contrary to its goals.
"To help develop the economy is part of their mission," Kroehne said. "For them to reduce service at a port that is growing, especially when there is a very strong need to export goods and services in a low-cost manner, for them to reduce those services doesn't seem to meet their mission."
In Granite City, Dennis Wilmsmeyer monitors local river commerce not only as the executive director of America's Central Port, but also as the president of Inland Rivers, Ports and Terminals Inc. He said the association is concerned that the Corps' plan will negatively impact the region's economy.
"From our industry's perspective, this is just exactly the opposite of what this country needs," Wilmsmeyer said. "We have a president pushing for exports and a governor pushing for more exports, while at the same time the federal government wants to reduce lock operations. This would take way the benefit of the most cost-effective form of transportation and the most environmentally friendly form of transportation. This would add delays and add cost to the transportation system. In the end, it's just hurting us, our country and our economy."
Wilkins said the Corps has been working with stakeholders and river users to minimize any impact. He said the Corps may be willing to compromise with the port district.
Meanwhile, Johnson said he optimistic that the Corps will eventually reach a decision that will work for everyone.
"The opportunities on the river are huge," Johnson said. "The lock is the key to make that work. Our relationship with the Corps has been great, and I know they will do what they can to make our hours work."
Contact reporter Will Buss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2526.