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Dresbach Lock and Dam

A barge waits to lock through the Lock and Dam 7 at Dresbach on July 8, 2017. One 15-barge tow moves the same amount of freight as about two trains or more than 1,000 trucks.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

A new study suggests the failure of any one of 25 aging locks on the upper Mississippi River could result in nearly half a million truckloads of freight on highways between the Twin Cities and St. Louis.

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers estimate that a shutdown of the river at Hannibal, Mo., would require more than 12 million tons of grain during a nine-month shipping season to be moved by truck, costing hundreds of millions of dollars and damaging already stressed roads.

The vast majority of these shipments would travel through southern Minnesota and Iowa, while a smaller amount would move through Wisconsin and Illinois, according to the study, causing nearly $29 million in pavement damage.

River diversion map

A map produced by the Center for Freight & Infrastructure Research & Education shows projected increases in agricultural freight hauled by trucks in the event of a Mississippi River shutdown. Rural Minnesota and Iowa roads would see the largest increase on a percentage basis with nearly 600 trucks per day hauling grain from ports in the Twin Cities and Red Wing.

Long-delayed visitors center along Wisconsin's Great River Road nearing completion

The study was funded by the 10 states of the Mid-America Freight Coalition, an organization dedicated to planning, operating and improving transportation infrastructure in the Midwest.

“We’re talking about a system,” said Ernest Perry, manager of the coalition and the lead researcher on the study. “If we don’t take care of this one part of the system it’s going to negatively impact another part of the system.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated the backlogged maintenance costs for locks and dams of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers is more than $1 billion. Mostly built in the 1930s, many of the locks have reached the end of their service lives, and the inland waterway system has earned a D-minus from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The lock and dams between Winona and La Crosse are more than 80 years old.

Bryan Peterson, navigation business line manager for the St. Paul District, said the Corps has been working in recent years to address maintenance issues as the budget allows.

“We definitely have needs,” he said. “I think we’re maintaining them well enough until we can fill those needs.”

Peterson said over the past five years the river has been open about 99 percent of the time, with most closures resulting from vessels hitting the gates rather than mechanical failure.

“It’s always a potential,” he said. “It’s a pretty good record, but there’s always that risk.”

In the event of a river closure, the study estimates, about 1.4 million tons would originate from Winona and nearly 500,000 from La Crosse, which would result in more than 190 trucks per day traveling through Wisconsin on Interstate 90.

Nearly 5.8 million tons coming from the Twin Cities and Red Wing would result in nearly 600 more trucks per day on Hwy. 52 through southern Minnesota and into Iowa.

Researchers have previously assumed railroads would absorb most of the displaced shipments during a river shutdown, the study looked at scenarios in which trucking picks up 75 to 100 percent of the load. While it’s likely that more volume would move by rail, Perry said, states were interested in seeing the impact on roads.

One 15-barge tow carries the equivalent of about two trains or more than 1,000 trucks.

The study also focused only on agricultural products, though such products made up less than 30 percent of the total river volume in 2016, according to Corps data. 

"There’s stuff moving north as well," Perry noted.

Perry estimates the total costs of a season-long shutdown would be about $319.6 million, including the social costs of additional carbon dioxide emissions. The costs with failures in following years, he said, could begin to approach the $1 billion in deferred maintenance on the river.

“Everybody knows it’s an issue,” Perry said. “If we don’t take care of this one part of the system it’s going to negatively impact another part of the system.”



Rhymes with Lubbock. La Crosse Tribune reporter and data geek. Covers energy, transportation and the environment, among other things. Call him at 608-791-8217.

(4) comments


They'd put it on a train. Thanks for the story problem study though UW Madison.

Alan Muller

From the abstract: "This project reviews southbound agricultural shipments from the Upper Mississippi River originating from the states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin to understand the potential impacts of shifting barge shipments to the parallel highway infrastructure." But this seems an irrational scenario. Increased rail shipment would be a more likely scenario.

Rick Czeczok

Wait a minute, the feds just spent millions if not billions on the Mississippi river reconstruct over the last 3 years. Why should there be a failure when the damns have just been rebuilt. Something stinks here. Why was that study done, and at what cost?
This is either a joke, or someone or something, really fell through the cracks within the corp of engineers. Accountability people......

Mr Wizard

The Mid-America Freight Coalition sponsors a study by the UW, who never saw a project they couldn't throw money at, and we should take it as gospel. As Rick says, the USCEC has been spending billions on the upper Mississippi lock and dam system. Until the towboat companies kick in big time, any big expansion projects shouldn't even be considered in any infrastructure spending. And yes, railroads can handle whatever the towboats haul now, and they are not even mentioned in the supposed "study".

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