Businesses that move commodities on the Illinois Waterway system are being encouraged to start making alternative plans because of the scheduled closure of locks this summer, according to the St. Louis Regional Freightway.
With a two-week closure planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in August and closures of 90 to 120 days expected in the summers of 2020 and 2023, shippers will need to either find alternate routes for the millions of tons of commodities that typically move along the Illinois River or ship outside of the closure windows, the St. Louis Regional Freightway said.
One of those alternative routes is the Mississippi River, and the St. Louis region could see an increase of commodities rerouted through its freight network, said the St. Louis Regional Freightway, a bi-state development enterprise formed to create a regional freight district and comprehensive authority for freight operations and opportunities within eight counties in Illinois and Missouri that comprise the St. Louis metropolitan area.
The organization said six of the eight locks on the Illinois Waterway system are scheduled to undergo major infrastructure repairs in order to sustain a navigable connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.
Nearly 30 million tons of commodities a year move through the southernmost and busiest lock on the Illinois River, the LaGrange lock and dam in Versailles, Ill. That is the federal facility in most urgent need for major rehabilitation and repair, according to the St. Louis Regional Freightway.
During the scheduled closures, no vessels will be able to pass through the affected locks. Illinois locks and dams in Ottawa (pictured above) and Marseilles will undergo partial closures in June and July, with full closures scheduled from Aug. 16 to 30.
“It’s vital that industry members are aware of the plans, the timing and any steps they need to take in advance of the closures to help minimize the disruption to their operations or to potentially be a part of the solution,” said Mary Lamie, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway. “We should have the capacity to take on more and be a part of the solution for those who will be impacted, if the planning starts early.”
Mike Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc., said what actually will happen to commodity movements during the closure is the great unknown. “Plan, be flexible and be ready.”
Marty Hettel, vice president of government affairs at American Commercial Barge Lines and chairman of the Inland Waterway User Board, said closures on the Illinois Waterway are unprecedented, so the industry does not yet know what the workarounds will be.
Each year more than 10 million tons of corn and soybeans transit through the LaGrange lock bound for export. Non-agricultural products being moved through the Illinois Waterway system locks range from chemicals and petroleum products to raw materials for steel mills.
Finished product can be loaded on emptied barges as floating storage until it can be moved. Some critical commodities, such as ethanol, will have to move by truck or rail to points outside the locks since they can’t be stored or put in a pipeline. Hettel added that some of the agricultural products may go on unit trains to St. Louis to ship down the Mississippi River for export or go to terminals below the LaGrange lock, but much will depend on the price for those commodities.
Liquid chemical shippers may be most impacted as those products cannot sit as long on a barge, Hettel said.
But there are potential alternative routes. There are 40 shuttle rail facilities in the state. Sigman pointed out that there also is a containerization option used to currently move about 10 percent of the soybeans by rail to coastal ports.
“Leveraging the flexibility of different directions and the wide range of modes available, soybean farmers have some options,” Sigman said.