Updating Lock 26: a major snag to traffic on Mississippi

Mississippi river towboat Capt. David Graham has a tricky job steerin his string of heavily loaded grain barges into Lock 26 -- the main bottleneck on this freight waterway linking the Gulf of Mexico with the upper Midwest. From the pilothouse at the stern of his quarter-mile-long, 105-foot-wide raft of barges swinging in the current, the 110-foot- wide lock ahead looks like the eye of a very small needle.

Captain Graham varies engine speed and eases his rudders as if he were patting a kitten. Pilot John Mosele, in contact by radio, is just as gentle as he uses his 5,000-horsepower tugboat Piasa to nudge Graham's lead barge into position during this dangerous and delicate procedure. But graham and other Misssissippi River towboatmen say that navigating around new obstacles thrown up by the Reagan administration may call for even greater skills.

To avoid such risks as wedging into the lock or being sucked off sideways onto the dam, Graham works closely both with local Norman Brothers tugboat pilots and with the US Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Lock 26.

Perhaps because they must work together to move 70 million tons of cargo through narrow Lock 26 every year, towboat captains, tugboat pilots, and US Army Corps of Engineers officials all agree. They insist that the greatly overloaded lock must be replaced.

Under present plans, a new Lock 26, now under construction, should open in 1989 at a cost of $800 million. both Corps of Engineers officials and towboat operators, however, expect actual costs will run far higher and predict the opening is still another 15 years away. And, instead of replacing the present 360-foot and 600-foot locks with two new 1,200-foot chambers as planned back in 1969, the new plan is for just a single 1 ,200-foot lock.

Waterways users want extra money put into the project to speed up construction. Instead, they face a Reagan administration pledge to make the nation's waterways pay for themselves.A fuel tax of 4 cents a gallon for barge traffic was first imposed last October. Current proposals call for increasing this tax to 30 cents in 1983 to repay the government's costs for operating the waterways system.

Taxing barge traffic -- which transports more than 400 tons of bulk cargo a mile per gallon of fuel, compared with only 200 tons by rail or 70 tons by truck -- seems to contradict other Reagan policies according to waterways users. They note that the Reagan administration wants to increase exports of grain and coal. So they are surprised by tax proposals that some experts estimate could increase the cost of shipping Minnesota wheat, Iowa corn, or Illinois coal to gulf ports by as much as one-third.

James Fogilphol, lock master for the Army Cors of Engineers, locks more than 400 barges with perhaps 600,000 tons of cargo through Lock 26 on a good day. But this depends on the locks operating 24 hours a day, on good weather, and on a great deal of voluntary help from barge operators. Even with everything clicking, he says, traffic can build up so that "just a few nights ago, we had 60-to-80 tows waiting at any one time, with up to an 86-hour delay for going through."

Nomatter how smoothly everyone works together at Lock 26, a great many other factors combine to create bottlenecks here.

Al Baiter, assistant lock master for the Corps of Engineers at Lock 27, eigth miles down river from Lock 26, watches 6 million to 7 million tons slip through his locks every month. Without this traffic, he says, "All you people up north can forget about heating your homes with oil in the winter and down south everyone can forget about getting bread and corn."

Clearly the Mississippi is an important domestic trading route, with petroleum products and hard coal heading north while increasing qualities of corn, wheat, oats, barley, and rye flow south. In lesser quantities, a great variety of cargoes ranging from fertilizers for Midwest croplands to manufactured goods move both ways on the Mississippi River system.

But the river has become an increasingly important international trading route, too. This has a direct effect on the situation of Alton's Lock 26 and on whether the Reagan administration should agree to new investment in Lock 26's future.

Currently, barge traffic is slack because grain prices are low. Farmers are storing last year's corn and soybeans and this year's wheat waiting for better prices. The Midwest's many grain elevators are filling up.

The delicate balance of world grain supplies could shift overnight, however, and send prices up enough to release a flood of grain, reloading all the mississippi's 23,000 barges.

Delivering grain downriver when prices rise, says Captain Graham, will mean not only fighting heavier traffic on the river and logner delays at Lock 26, but fending off impatient grain traders. But he's well aware of the risks on this powerful river, explaining that "no matter how badly they want this grain down there, you haven't accomplished anything if you sink a barge."

Graham's answer is new, larger locks and better navigational aids now. The only alternative, he believes, is to take more costly emergency action later when the nation as a whole comes to realize what waterways operators already know: that the vital Mississippi transportation network needs additional investment now in order to benefit the country as a whole.

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