At the recent Waterways Symposium in Pittsburgh, Jim Stark, president of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association, gave a cogent tour of serious issues facing the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. He singled out four navigation structures in desperate need of modernization that has been delayed for years.
New Orleans’ Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock was built in 1923 and is completely inadequate for modern towboat traffic. Nonetheless, if it was unable to be used by towboats, they would either have to detour 11 days out of their way up the Mississippi River and back down by the Tenn-Tom system, or risk an open water route that exposes them to the winds and currents of Lake Borgne, a route Stark said is not really feasible. Leaving the lock alone is not an option; its walls are leaking and its outdated equipment is deteriorating. Yet progress in modernizing this key node that connects the eastern and western halves of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal system has been held up for years, partly by court challenges. A General Re-evaluation Report, due by February, estimates the cost-benefit ratio at 4.78:1 and is expected to estimate that completion could take 11 years.
The Brazos River floodgates, at the intersection of the GIWW with the Brazos River, are due to be replaced. They were designed for an era in which they saw very little towboat traffic and many barges were towed astern. Today, about 2,500 tows a month move through, carrying 23 million tons of cargo a year, even though the floodgates must be closed for a portion of each day. A Chief’s Report released in October gives a benefit/cost ratio of 5.0:1.
The Corps of Engineers is still assessing the benefits of the Colorado River Locks, which also started out as floodgates.
Meanwhile at the Bayou Sorrel Lock on the Port Allen Alternate Route, linking the GIWW and the Mississippi River, the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association and the Inland Waterways Users Board both maintain that the Corps has seriously undercounted the amount of delay of tows at this structure, and both have asked the Corps to recalculate the true extent and costs of delays, since that will affect how it calculates cost-benefit ratios. They claim the Corps also underestimates the amount of petroleum-based cargoes moved through the lock.
Several speakers at the Waterways Symposium spoke about assessing logistics and risk in deciding where to site significant projects like the $6 billion ethane cracker in Monaca, Pa., that is bringing many benefits to the Pittsburgh area.
Yet the Gulf Coast has seen $100 billion in investment. Much of that is geared toward deep-water infrastructure, true. But the entire GIWW system works as a whole; any increase in oil and gas movement in Houston and the other Gulf ports means increased barge traffic on the GIWW as well. It’s long past time for these four choke points to be fully funded and modernized.