Engineering Marvels Become Old Workhorses

Most of Alabama’s locks and dams are past their 50-year design life. But they’re not as ancient as other U.S. waterways, so they aren’t in line for federal funding.

Federal funding for inland waterways decreased from $4.4 billion annually to $2.4 billion in 2013.

There was a time when locks and dams on Alabama’s inland waterways were celebrated as massive engineering marvels that opened the state to trade and development.

As many as 1,000 people attended the grand opening of the Bankhead Lock and Dam more than a hundred years ago, many of them traveling by steamers from Mobile all the way past Tuscaloosa to commemorate the event.

The new facility made the Black Warrior River navigable along its entire course and, because it intersects the Tombigbee River, opened a water route between the Gulf of Mexico and Birmingham. Some of Alabama’s leading public dignitaries spoke that day, rejoicing “in the anticipated industrial development that the opening of the river would allow,” according to an account in The Tuscaloosa News.

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Alabama developed a series of locks and dam systems through the years that gave the state one of the largest inland waterways systems in the nation.

But time passes and things change. Alabama’s locks and dams, most of which were built between 1940 and 1970, have aged and most are past their 50-year design life.

That has presented acute maintenance and repair concerns, because funding for such facilities has lagged. Alabama’s inland waterways system has declined to the point that it was rated a D+ by the most recent infrastructure report card compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).  But that’s a notch above the nation’s river systems as a group, which earned a D in the comprehensive study.

The United States has 12,000 miles of commercially navigable rivers, thanks to an extensive lock and dam network. More than 600 million tons of cargo is shipped on those waterways annually, which accounts for 14 percent of the nation’s domestic freight and generates more than 500,000 jobs, according to the ASCE.

A large majority of that traffic is on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, but Alabama’s contribution to that total is significant. The state’s rivers account for more than 69.4 million tons of cargo shipped annually on 1,300 miles of rivers linked by 16 locks. About 56 percent of that cargo is coal, and 21 percent is petroleum products.

Virtually all of Alabama’s commercial navigation is on the Tennessee, Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mobile District operates and manages most of the lock and dam systems in the state. Its Nashville District covers three on or near the Tennessee River.

The ASCE report, based on data from several years ago, cites serious delays at Alabama’s two most active locks, in Coffeeville and Demopolis. It is especially critical of facilities at Coffeeville, completed in 1965. It’s the busiest lock and dam system in Alabama and the closest to the Port of Mobile, which makes it a critical point in the inland waterways network.

According to the ASCE report, which was based on Corps of Engineers data, Coffeeville experienced repeated, excessive delays from 2012 through 2016, with almost every vessel delayed and the average delay being days, not hours.

Carly Dyess, chief of navigation at the Corps of Engineers Mobile District, says there currently are no significant delays at Coffeeville. But there is no question that the locks there and elsewhere in the state are a source of concern. This year, for example, the lower gates at Holt Lock and Dam were replaced, which required a month-long closure of those facilities. Two years ago, the lower gates on the Bankhead Lock and Dam were replaced.

“Moving forward, we’ve got two locks, Coffeeville and Demopolis, where the age of the locks and the lower gates are definitely an issue that we’re concerned about and want to see replaced at some point,” says Larry Merrihew, president of the Warrior Tombigbee Waterway Association. “The lower gates take the most pressure, the most use and require the most maintenance.”

Holt Lock and Dam on the Black Warrior reopened in August after being closed a month for repairs.

The Corps of Engineers operates inland waterways facilities with funds allocated at the federal level. That funding decreased sharply from 2009 to 2013, from $4.4 billion annually to $2.4 billion, according to the ASCE.

It’s disconcerting that as poorly as Alabama’s inland waterways were graded in the ASCE report, the condition of inland waterways in other parts of the country is even worse.  In Iowa, for example, 15 of 16 lock and dam systems are more than 80 years old.

Massive amounts of funding for new construction and major rehabilitation projects have gone to projects in other states. Of some 25 priority inland waterways projects identified by the Waterways Council, none is in Alabama.

That means, for the foreseeable future at least, Alabama should expect no funding for new construction or major rehabilitation projects. In the meantime, as has been the case for years now, the Corps of Engineers is tasked with keeping the state’s aging lock and dam systems running on a shoestring budget.

Says Merrihew: “The Corps of Engineers Mobile office does an admirable job when you look at the fact that its funding over the past 10 years has been level.” 

Breakdowns in the inland waterways infrastructure could have a wide range of negative results, ranging from flooding to businesses choosing rail or truck services to transport their goods. In addition to putting more trucks on already congested roadways, such occurrences could impact business volumes at the Port of Mobile and reduce state revenues generated there.

The prospect of such things happening is very real if the funding issue isn’t resolved. “Even though infrastructure is a nonpartisan issue, funding it still tends to fall victim to political posturing,” says Bill Stahlman, P.E., a member of the ASCE’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure.  “Elected officials need to be informed as to the value each component of infrastructure brings to the table and why maintaining and enhancing it is vital to the economy on a local, state and federal level.”

As this issue of Business Alabama went to press, the funding question was up in the air. The U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the Water Resources Funding Act of 2018 in June, but the legislation had yet to be considered by the Senate and will eventually require President Donald Trump’s approval.

The House bill does not include recommendations made by the president earlier this year — as well as by previous administrations — for user fees levied on commercial users of inland waterways and public-private tolls, both of which had been adamantly opposed by inland waterways interests.

Charles Haun, vice chairman and CEO of Parker Towing in Tuscaloosa, says such fees would be “an administrative nightmare — a mess.”

As for the funding, “We’re not there yet in the Senate,” he says, “and I just don’t know if the legislation will be considered before the midterm elections or not.”

Charlie Ingram is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.

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