When you think about freight in Iowa, you likely picture semis on the interstate or maybe a fully loaded train chugging along Iowa’s rural landscape. You may be surprised to find that one of Iowa’s top priorities related to the movement of freight is the Upper Mississippi River lock and dam system.
As the only state bordered by two navigable rivers, totaling 491 miles with 60 barge terminals, Iowa has a unique capability to move large quantities of goods at competitive shipping rates through those rivers, especially through the 11 locks and dams bordering Iowa on the Mississippi south to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond to international markets.
Sam Hiscocks, an Iowa Department of Transportation freight planner, said, “Prior to President Trump taking office, his transition team asked states for infrastructure priorities for the large infrastructure plan it wanted to propose in the future. Iowa's number one priority was funding for the modernization of the lock-and-dam system in the Upper Mississippi River. The primary reason is the importance of locks and dams to Iowa's economy. Transporting bulk commodities via waterway is the slowest and least flexible of the three modes – truck, train, and barge. However, it is the most fuel-efficient, the cheapest, and can handle the largest volumes per trip.”
What’s the problem with river transportation?
Most of the locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River were constructed in the 1930s and have greatly surpassed their 50-year design life. Due to chronic underfunding, this aging infrastructure causes various problems, the most significant being delays to the barge industry. Hiscocks said, “This is due to scheduled and unscheduled maintenance activities, as well as lockage times. In the case of locations with only a 600-foot lock chamber, barge tows are required to disassemble and lock through twice because their tows are 1200-foot long fully assembled.”
He continued, “Delays at locks create congestion and congestion results in lost time and lost money. Record harvests of corn and soybeans can overwhelm the system causing more frequent and severe backups. These delays increase agricultural commodity prices and decrease the nation's competitive edge over rival exporters from other countries. In addition to the economic impact to farmers and shippers, the modal shift of these goods would take a significant toll on the highway and railroad systems in the state and region.”
Hiscocks said, “Agriculture is vital to Iowa's economy as the state is one of top producers of agricultural products in the country, typically ranking first in production of corn and soybeans. Export markets are key for farmers and grain processors. That importance grows as crop yields continue to rise annually and corn and soybean output increasingly outpaces domestic use. The lock and dam system plays a vital role in providing low-cost transportation for Iowa's agricultural products to reach national and international markets.”
What’s being done about the lock and dam problem?
The issue with aging river systems reaches far beyond Iowa. In the past few years, we’ve completed several initiatives including a Lock and Dam Modernization Study and a Mississippi River Action Plan Workshop, as well as continually participating in meetings with other agencies and organizations with an interest in improving this vital transportation link.
Hiscocks said, “Currently, we are working on an Upper Mississippi River Alternative Financing Study to look at the status and condition of the lock and dam system, the economic impact of delays to the state and region, and trying to quantify the potential economic impact of different types of investment on the system. This effort has been underway for a few months and we will hopefully have more to share soon. The initial findings have shown the great importance of the lock and dam system to Iowa and the Upper Midwest.”
For more information about freight movement in Iowa, go to https://iowadot.gov/systems_planning/freight/freight-home-page