Collaboration Takes Center Stage As Funding Pours In
The Corps of Engineers’ lock-closure schedules through 2024 were the topic when barge industry stakeholders and Corps officials from multiple districts met September 7 at the St. Louis District’s Service Base.
These stakeholder feedback meetings have been held regularly, although on no fixed schedule, for years. The barge industry has a keen interest in lock closure schedules because companies often book freight up to a year in advance.
Marty Hettel, vice president-government affairs at American Commercial Barge Line, member of the Inland Waterways Users Board and an industry veteran of many forums and venues, began the meeting by quickly running through figures of lock and dam closures in the current year, including the numbers of tows and barges delayed and how much the delays cost the towing and barge industry.
The stakeholder meetings originated as an internal meeting of Corps officials in the Pittsburgh Engineer District to discuss lock closures in the Ohio River system, according to Hettel. Towing industry officials were invited to sit in. The Pittsburgh meetings were found to be so useful that they were expanded and extended until they covered all the Corps districts and lock and dam projects.
Daniel Linkowski, director of the Corps’ Planning Center of Expertise for Inland Navigation, opened by giving a presentation on the long journey of Major Rehabilitation Evaluation Reports (MRERs). These reports are important because they are thresholds that allow projects to receive cost-share funding from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which can be disbursed more quickly than ordinary operation and maintenance funds.
Linkowski explained that the Corps distinguishes “reliability” rehabs from “efficiency” rehabs. Both types of rehab projects have to be different from normal operation and maintenance work, and both have to justify themselves based on cost and economic considerations. Safety is a component of “reliability” rehabs. The economic justification requirement is built into law, specifically a section of the Water Resources Development Act of 1992, Section 205, which authorized this distinction. Major rehab projects have to compete with new-start projects for the same pot of dollars.
“This [process] requires and allows apples-to-apples comparisons of projects, but requires more details in the MRERs,” Linkowski said.
“The screening effort is critical,” he said. It determines whether a project gets classified as “major maintenance” or “major rehab.” Even though this project screening takes place within the Corps, and no formal public notice is required, Linkowski said it’s common to bring in industry stakeholders anyway for informal discussions.
In response to questioning, Linkowski admitted that the distinction between “major rehab” and “major maintenance” can be fuzzy. He showed a graphic of an “evaluation decision tree” showing all the steps of the two pathways, that looked like two Christmas trees side-by-side, one with slightly skinnier branches. One of the most important items is whether a project can earn a categorical exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act, which means it doesn’t require public meetings on environmental impacts. Lock and Dam 18, for example, does not qualify for a MRER.
Linkowski began his career as an economist in the St. Louis District before moving to the Chicago District and the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division. He noted that before fiscal year 2020, the Corps produced between two and four MRERs a year. Back then, funding for major rehab projects was an uncertain trickle. In the year 2022, though, there are 13 active MRERs, thanks to the flood of infrastructure funding unleashed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Inland Navigation, Flood Risk and Water Supply Program Manager Candida Bronson gave a presentation on scheduled lock closures in the South Atlantic Division. The district is experimenting with fiber-reinforced polymer materials for some components of lock projects, something that she said is more common in Europe.
Todd Kimery, a regional maintenance program manager for the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, covered scheduled lock closures in his division. The LRD has three Regional Repair Fleets, a heavy, medium and light fleet. According to Hettel, the fleets used to be deployed only within the division but are now used according to systemwide priorities, increasing efficiency. He said it was an example of “breaking down siloes” in the use of Corps resources.
Richard Turner, inland navigation program manager in the Southwest Division , gave an overview of scheduled closures in the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. He said there were no outages currently scheduled for the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, but those could develop if the Brazos River Crossing project is funded this year.
Finally, structural engineer Erin Krug covered scheduled closures in the New Orleans District, including for the Old River Lock, Catfish Point Control Structure and Bayou Sorrell. One item not on the list yet: joint repairs at Algiers Lock, which could require 120 days of daytime closure. She said more information would be made available as it came in, but at this point no impacts to navigation were expected.
The participants agreed that the next meeting should come either after an omnibus bill is passed by Congress, or the Corps releases its next Work Plan. Either event should contain new funding for lock and dam projects—and therefore proposed closures. All the industry participants thanked the Corps for the ongoing meetings.