As American farmers harvest billions of bushels of corn and soybeans, much of this crop will find its way to market on trucks, trains, and river barges. But what would happen if this system came to a standstill? The likelihood of a collapse in the U.S. transportation system is greater than you might think. New research by the Mid-America Freight Coalition quantifies what many in agriculture have known for years: failure of our aging river locks and dams along the Mississippi River and its tributaries would be ruinous with billions of dollars in lost jobs and reduced economic activity.
Recently, USDA released estimates of the economic implications to the agriculture sector should a disruption occur at either Lock & Dam 25 on the Upper Mississippi or La Grange Lock & Dam on the Illinois River waterway. The locations were selected because they are representative of the lock system as a whole, but also because they occupy key locations on the river system. “These are both 600 foot locks even though modern tows are 1,200 feet-long. They are also at the lower reaches of the waterways,” said Ken Hartman, chair of the National Corn Growers Association’s Market Access Action Team. “The southbound traffic here already contributes to long delays because of the lock size. But a disruption of any length of time related to their deteriorating condition would be catastrophic for family farmers who are increasingly dependent on exports and trade.”
Among several important findings, the report concludes a L&D 25 closure could result in a loss of more than 7,000 jobs, $1.3 billion of labor income, and about $2.4 billion of economic activity (total industry output) annually. Similarly, closing La Grange Lock & Dam could result in a reduction of 5,500 jobs, $900 million of labor income, and $1.8 billion of economic activity annually. “A majority of these locks were built in the 1930s and have surpassed their designed lifespan,” Hartman notes. “With growing demand being made on the system, upgrading the navigational efficiency of these waterways is a priority for corn farmers and NCGA, especially when most of our prospective customers are now overseas.”
A total of 36 locks and dams, 28 on the Upper Mississippi River, are maintained at a 9-foot depth navigation channel for barge transportation.