MAFC Research Helps States Evaluate the Costs of Failure vs. the Costs of Maintaining Lock Infrastructure Along the Upper Mississippi River

mississippi river

What would happen if something were to stop the flow of goods along the Upper Mississippi River? Researchers at the Mid-America Freight Coalition (MAFC), headquartered at the National Center for Freight & Infrastructure Research & Education (CFIRE) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explored the costs of failure of the systems that support freight shipments along this waterway. The results of their investigation have been released in a report titled, “Modal Investment Comparison: The Impact of Upper Mississippi River Lock and Dam Shutdowns on State Highway Infrastructure.” The report provides guidance to states around the costs and benefits of infrastructure maintenance and investment decisions.

An important component of the Midwest economy, the Upper Mississippi River is responsible for the movement of over $88 billion in goods annually. This is a crucial mode of freight movement, especially for the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri, which rely on the waterway to export their agricultural products and other raw materials. Unfortunately, the infrastructure that makes freight movement along this waterway possible is in a fragile state with many points of potential failure. The precarious situation begs the question whether the region’s states can afford to maintain the waterway infrastructure or, alternatively, take on the added expenses that would be incurred when other modes absorb displaced freight movement in the event of a failure.

“The Mississippi River is of vital importance to the economies of Iowa, the Upper Midwest, and the nation as a whole,” said Sam Hiscocks, Freight Coordinator at the Iowa Department of Transportation. “With agricultural exports expected to increase and the expansion of the Panama Canal shifting the amount of goods that can be shipped via ports on the Gulf of Mexico, the State of Iowa has a strong interest in the condition of the Mississippi River infrastructure.”

State departments of transportation are increasingly progressive in their approach according to Ernest Perry, PhD, MAFC Program Manager and principal investigator for the project.

“More and more they must support the whole system of transportation, including all modes, as compared to the past where they were relegated to highway management. With this increasing scope, they are looking for ways to make the most of every transportation mode, leveraging each for the maximum benefit of their state. This means finding the data they need to make good decisions about their transportation infrastructure,” said Perry.

The Upper Mississippi River is the portion of the Mississippi River between Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota and St. Louis, Missouri. This is considered the area that is navigable for freight movement on barges, which is facilitated through a series of locks. Most of this lock and dam infrastructure is nearly 100 years old. Maintenance of these structures is woefully behind with an estimated backlog of over $1 billion.
Likewise, highways and bridges are also impacted by budget constraints and maintenance backlogs. There is currently an estimated $836 billion backlog in bridge and highway investment, nationally. Given the lack of investment and, in many cases, deteriorating pavement conditions, a potential shutdown of the Upper Mississippi River due to lock and dam failure would force significant tonnage to be rerouted onto the highways. Those highways would absorb significant pavement and structural damage from increased traffic of fully loaded trucks.

According to Hiscocks, many of the country’s locks and dams have reached or even far exceeded design life, resulting in infrastructure deteriorating faster than it is being replaced.

“With this system suffering from chronic underfunding, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Upper Mississippi River Lock & Dam system is, ‘What would the impact be if a long-term shutdown takes place?’ This report helps us broaden our understanding by quantifying the financial impact of such an occurrence to the state, trucking companies, and the environment. It also helps us target corridors that would potentially be affected if a modal shift of commodities from the waterway was necessary,” said Hiscocks.

The researchers compared the relative costs of maintaining the marine infrastructure versus the projected maintenance costs that would be incurred by the highway system in the event of failures in the lock and dam system.

Looking only at the impacts of downbound agricultural commodities, the researchers calculated the increased traffic to parallel highway routes that would be caused by a single lock and dam failure. With the help of maps, trends for the region emerged. The largest percent increases in highway traffic would occur in rural Minnesota and Iowa, where relatively less-traveled U.S. and State Highways were predicted to see a large increase. By contrast, roads on the eastern bank of the Mississippi would see less impact. This is due to a relatively lower amount of tonnage shipped from ports that would use these routes, and relatively higher preexisting truck traffic counts.

Across the region, based on a calculated one-season shutdown, between 9.1 and 12.4 million tons of agricultural goods would be displaced. This is equivalent to between 367,000 and 489,000 truckloads. It would cost as much as $283 million to move these loads by truck, and damage from these movements could cost states up to $28.8 million.

The researchers point out that they were looking at only a subset of commodities that are shipped on this route. As shown in previous studies, the true cost of a river shutdown would be much greater, as it would raise the cost of shipping for multiple commodities and reduce the economic competitiveness of the Upper Midwest.

Armed with the results of this study, state governments, departments of transportation, and port authorities can work together to make data-driven decisions balancing the costs of maintaining lock and dam infrastructure with the impacts a potential failure would have on other freight transportation modes.

About the MAFC

The Mid-America Freight Coalition (MAFC) is a regional organization that cooperates in the planning, operation, preservation, and improvement of transportation infrastructure in the Midwest. This region includes ten states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin) that share key interstate corridors, inland waterways, and the Great Lakes. Staff services and management for the coalition are provided by the National Center for Freight & Infrastructure Research & Education (CFIRE) and is headquartered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.