Business leaders: give us more government
In 2007, Congress authorized the addition of 1200-foot chambers to the five locks on the Upper Miss and two on the Illinois. If that work were done, “it would take us 25 to 30 minutes to go through each of those locks instead of 2 ½ to 3 hours,” said Larry Daily, Alter’s president. Doing the same thing with all the locks would mean a savings of four or five days on a roundtrip from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. “My friends at the National Corn Growers Association,” Daily added, “tell me that would be worth about an extra 15 cents a bushel on a regular basis to the farmer.”
But on the Upper Miss, too, no additional dollars have been appropriated for this undertaking. “And under the current scenario, we’ll be lucky if my children’s children see all these locks being completed, because of the way the government is funding the projects on a piecemeal basis,” Daily said. “They stop and they start. It’s kind of like if you stopped at the lumberyard every other day to buy a two-by-four because you had a little extra money, and you decided to try to build a house like that. Projects that should take eight years are taking 22 years, and the same project that was supposed to cost $700 million dollars ends up costing $2.4 billion. It’s just a ridiculous situation we’re in right now.”
Hobbling the Great Lakes
If the barge operators of the Upper Miss long for the dual chambers — and bigger chambers — of the Ohio, Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, will tell you that both groups have it easy compared to his band of shippers, who operate in the western four Great Lakes. “Our industry primarily moves iron ore for the steel industry, coal for power production, and stone, either metallurgical for the steel or construction stone,” Weakley said. Here, freight is moved in vessels as long as 1,000 feet, as wide as 100 feet, and capable of carrying as much as 270,000 tons of cargo each.
On the Great Lakes, according to Weakley, you see “all kinds of breakwalls collapsing and deteriorating.” There are lock issues here, too. Talk of replacing the Soo Lock at Sault St. Marie goes back decades, Weakley said, adding that, in his mind, that lock qualifies as the “highest priority in terms of economic impact” of any lock project in the country, “and yet it’s unfunded.”
But the biggest maintenance problem in Weakley’s realm is inadequate dredging. In many Great Lakes harbors, the buildup of sediment takes a foot or more off the maximum draft of one of these giant vessels, which means a loss of thousands of tons of cargo capacity. Some of the worst dredging situations can be found along the southern and eastern shores of Lake Michigan.
In parts of Indiana Harbor, the sediment had reached depths of well over two feet by the time the Corps of Engineers started dredging recently — for the first time in thirty years. Indiana Harbor owes its belated good fortune partly to the discovery that some of its muck was toxic in addition to being a navigation hazard. (The political clout of East Chicago and Gary steelmakers may also have played a role.)
On Industrial Island outside St. Joseph’s, Michigan, Pete Berghoff, the owner of a seven-acre terminal and storage facility for limestone, road salt, and furnace slag, is wondering what it would take to inspire a similar rescue mission for his silt-ridden harbor. A year ago, the runoff from a succession of winter snowstorms blocked all boat traffic in and out for six months — from January to August. “We had a highway contract that year to supply stone, and it absolutely wrought havoc on us,” Berghoff recalled.
Shippers generally don’t like to complain too much about local conditions, lest their harbors and businesses get a bad reputation. Looming over the concerns expressed by Berghoff and the lake-oriented businesses of western Michigan, however, is the fate of such enterprises as an Ontanogon lumber company that ceased operations altogether a few years back. In New York State, accumulated sediment eventually caused the entire port of Dunkirk to shut down in 2005.
Some of the ports of western Michigan could soon fade out of business in similar fashion. “You know, there is no room for forgiveness when you’re in the dock business,” Berghoff said. “You lose one or two boats, or you have problems with one or two boats, and it does not take much in today’s economic climate to push your head under.”
Making the case
Since the canal-building of the early 1800s, public investment has played an important role in America’s economic growth. That is an aspect of our national story that doesn’t get much attention these days, according to Scott Lilly, who is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy organization.
Many corporate leaders “recognize that some kind of a balanced relationship between public and private sector efforts is what really makes the economy grow,” Lilly said in a phone interview. Businesspeople will advocate for this or that program of particular relevance to their industries, and “someone like [Intel CEO] Paul Otellini will host a conference on the need for more government funding of scientific research,” Lilly said. “But they won’t directly take on others in the business community who are pressing an opposite message. If they want to succeed,” he continued, “they have to draw the line and say, ‘This is where we’re coming from and this is what we believe needs to happen, and the other side is wrong.’”