KY Lock Project to Speed Barge Traffic

Sat December 04, 2004 - Midwest Edition

GILBERTSVILLE, KY (AP) Before passing through the 600-ft. Kentucky Lock, workers separate most barge tows in sections small enough to fit through the undersized lock –– a process that is time consuming, costly and dangerous.

Breaking a tow causes delays of four to five hours, on average, the longest of any lock in the Ohio River system, at a cost of about $1,800 per tow. A new 1,200-ft. lock would allow barges to pass through in a mere 30 minutes, avoiding delays that otherwise are expected to reach an average eight and a half hours per tow by 2010. But how soon the new lock is built depends on the flow of federal money.

“Kentucky Lock is a bottleneck right now,” said Don Getty, Kentucky Lock project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Nashville, TN. “It’s the weak link in the chain.”

The routine of breaking tows to get through the existing lock –– which was designed in the 1940s –– is dangerous work. “You can imagine what it’s like out there in the dark in January with wind and sleet,” he said.

The corps is in charge of relocating U.S. 62, a railway line and Tennessee Valley Authority transmission lines, and building the new lock starting in 2007. A fifth of the overall project is finished, at a cost of $134 million, including four new 375-ft. towers.

Three temporary cofferdam cells, 68 ft. wide and designed to hold back water upstream of the dam for lock construction, are 65 percent complete. Substructures for the road and railroad are 75 percent finished. Federal money is the key to when the lock gets built, Getty said.

At recent-year funding levels of $30 million annually, it will be 2023 before all the work is done. Doubling the funding, which Getty said “is not unrealistic,” would mean finishing the lock by about 2011 at a cost of $639 million.

Delays have a big economic impact because Kentucky Lock is the gateway to the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. It is the last and busiest of 13 locks along the river system, handling about 39 million tons of products annually from as many as 20 states.

The corps estimates that if the project takes until 2023 to complete, it will cost the river industry $305 million in delays in today’s dollars, and over $1 billion with inflation. That affects consumer prices for goods and electricity because river shipping is by far the cheapest mode of transportation for materials such as steel, coal, rock, grain and chemicals, Getty said.

The current Bush administration budget contains $25 million –– $10 million short of the amount needed to complete ongoing construction. That amount also jeopardizes awarding contracts early next year for road and rail bridge superstructures, Getty said. The bridges must be built before the old corridors across Kentucky Dam are shut down to start work on the new lock. The bridges and lock will be built about 500 yds. downstream of the existing structures.

Although the House budget has $45 million, enough for the superstructure contracts, there currently is no funding in the Senate. That worries barge companies, who pay a 20-cent tax on each gallon of river fuel into a trust fund for river improvements. The fund has an $800 million surplus that can’t be spent until it is matched dollar-for-dollar by federal money, which hasn’t been appropriated.

“I think making sure the government doesn’t lose its will to continue supporting the waterway infrastructure is probably the biggest risk to us,” said Craig Philip, president of Nashville-based Ingram Barge Co., the nation’s largest river towing firm, whose fleeting operations are in Paducah.

Keeping the Kentucky Lock project moving has many other economic benefits. Getty said there will be 500 to 600 construction jobs during the peak of lock work, and area companies are gaining considerable business in supplying the project.