Locks and dams have new way to pay for much-needed repairs - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Locks and dams have new way to pay for much-needed repairs

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Lock and Dam 11 in Dubuque Lock and Dam 11 in Dubuque

A federal law President Obama signed just this month is providing a new way to pay for improvements to the lock and dam system. It allows for the US Army Corps of Engineers, for the first time ever, to seek money from the private sector.

This is important, as aging infrastructure along America's rivers could have big impacts on people's daily commutes and prices they pay at the gas pump and grocery store. Every year, billions of dollars in commodities get shipped down the nation's rivers. If one of the locks and dams that help regulate the river breaks, river traffic could halt and shipping could be delayed, with negative impact trickling down to the average American.

The locks and dams along the Mississippi River were installed with a life expectancy of 50 years-- and that was more than 70 years ago, for most of them.

Experts say river infrastructure is in sore need of updating, and up until now, money for repairs had been nowhere in sight.

The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) operates and maintains the locks and dams, but plenty of private companies use them, from farmers shipping their grain to barge companies transporting goods.

Dan Arnold is construction manager at Newt Marine, a company that depends on this river and its functioning locks and dams for business.

"The locks and dams and the infrastructure of the river has been needing serious repairs for a long time, and it's been very difficult to get federal government funding to make some of these repairs," Arnold said. "That infrastructure is very important to our country as far as how much material moves up and down this river."

He said he hopes the aging infrastructure will finally see some improvements with the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, which includes the new provision allowing private companies to help pay for upgrades.

"Honestly, I would think the big barge industry would be the one that would be most impacted here....like Marquette Transportation...that are billion dollar industries, and they have the deep pockets to help make something like this happen," he said, adding, "companies that size have a lot of expertise in what is really necessary here and what will have the most impact and bang-for-the-buck spent on river transportation."

Arnold says Newt Marine sees the new law "as a very positive step forward."

The law impacts more than just people involved in the river shipping industry.

If a lock and dam failed, goods shipped by barge would have to be shipped another way. The Iowa Department of Transportation says the average 15-barge tow on the river carries the equivalent cargo of 200 train cars or 870 large semi trucks. In other words, roads and rails would be more crowded if the river's shipping industry collapsed due to a broken lock and dam.

USACE Rock Island District spokesperson Ron Fournier said repairs to the district's 20 locks and dams would cost nearly $1 billion. Without private sector dollars, he said, those repairs might not happen any time soon.

Since President Obama signed the new law just this month, Fournier said, the USACE is still in the very early stages of exploring what this public-private partnership may look like for the locks and dams.

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