Report - Barge schedules could cut river congestion, spending

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A University of Missouri study found that if the Army Corps of Engineers scheduled the times barges could use locks, river traffic would ease, and $2.3 billion wouldn't need to spent on upper Mississippi River navigation improvements.

The corps is considering the construction of as many as seven new locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Barge tows stretching up to 1,100 feet long now must separate in half to go through 600-foot-long locks, creating traffic backups.

The school's Center for Transportation Studies studied the issue. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday the report proposed that rather than building longer locks, barge traffic could be eased by a centralized logistics system, something like what air traffic controllers use to coordinate airplane takeoffs and landings.

Mark Muller of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, which commissioned the study, said that airlines, railroads and some retailers use elaborate logistics systems. Options like those should be considered for the navigation system before the public pays for major improvements to lock and dams, he said.

Chris Brescia, president of the St. Louis-based navigation industry group MARC 2000, said that ideas to improve traffic, like creating fees for peak usage times, have been looked at but disregarded as being unworkable.

"The bottom line is, it's a market-driven system," Brescia said. "The bulk of the goods move when the market wants it to move," not according to appointed times.

Corps project manager Denny Lundberg said lock fees are still under consideration.

The corps asked the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to look at "non-structural" approaches to solving the barge congestion problem. But the resulting report, issued in draft form in September, found that neither tradable permits nor lock fees would provide a cost-effective solution.

But the Volpe report said the University of Missouri study's proposed system could tap unused lock capacity and shorten waiting lines. It called for further study of the proposal.

Lundberg said the corps would look at the concept more, but that it will not work by itself. A barge could slow its arrival time at a lock to avoid waiting in line, but it would still spend the same amount of time on the river, he said.

"We don't think it's a magic bullet," Lundberg said. "It might help a little on saving fuel, but the overall system benefit wouldn't be that great."

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