Upper Mississippi gets Marine Highway designation

A tow pushes barges through the locks at Quincy in 2012. The Mississippi River has been designated a Marine Highway from Grafton, Ill., to Minneapolis. (H-W File Photo)
Posted: Aug. 28, 2014 10:55 am Updated: Sep. 18, 2014 3:15 pm

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

A Marine Highway Corridor designation approved this week for the upper Mississippi River could boost efforts to upgrade locks, build ports and ship freight along the waterway.

"This important designation is the outcome of great regional collaboration and it recognizes how vital this inland waterway is to connecting our Tri-State region to the world economy," said Erica Borggren, acting secretary of transportation in Illinois.

Borggren said the U.S. Department of Transportation has adopted the M-35 Marine Highway Corridor, which will stretch along the river from Grafton, Ill., to Minneapolis. Its secondary name will be the Waterway of the Saints, mirroring the Avenue of the Saints highway, which stretches from St. Louis to St. Paul along U.S. 61, Route 27 and Interstate 35.

The Marine Highway program was launched in 2007 as part of a federal effort to ease freight congestion along the nation's highways by encouraging greater use of the nation's waterways. Several other corridors already exist, including the M-55 corridor south of Grafton to the Gulf of Mexico.

Federal projections show the Waterway of the Saints could be expected to shift up to 5 percent of freight traffic from trucks to barges and 1.5 percent from trains to barges.

Federal funds could help boost barge traffic by financing lock extensions at five locations along the upper Mississippi. Locks at Quincy and the Missouri communities of Canton, Saverton, Clarksville and Winfield would get 1,200-foot lock chambers that would allow barge tows to lock through in a single procedure. The current 600-foot locks force most barge tows to be decoupled and locked through in two procedures.

Charles Bell, acting director of the Mid-America Intermodal Port Authority, said the large lock chambers would cut lock-through time by an hour to 90 minutes at each lock, making waterways transportation more attractive and less costly.

The effort to upgrade locks also was taken up last week when five governors whose states border the upper Mississippi -- Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for funds to upgrade Mississippi River Locks 20-25 as well as Illinois River locks at Peoria and at LaGrange in Brown County, as outlined in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.

"Our region's prosperity and quality of life depend upon the Mississippi River's continuing viability as a commercial transportation system, particularly for its ability to move a substantial portion of the nation's agricultural exports to the Gulf of Mexico," the letter said.

The Marine Highway designation also has arrived in time to help support the Mid-America Port Authority's grant application for the sixth round of TIGER grants now under consideration by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Bell said more than $18 million is being sought through the grant program to be matched with nearly $8 million in local funds. If the grant application is approved, nearly $26 million could be used to construct containerized port facilities in the South Quincy Industrial District, which is protected by a 500-year levee. The port would have river access just south of Lock and Dam 21 and would provide rail and road connections.

Three companies with international markets and plant locations have pledged to invest in infrastructure at the port. One global company also would build a major inland terminal on the dry side of the levee with liquid and dry bulk cargo and train handling capabilities.

Marcel Wagner Jr., president of the Great River Economic Development Foundationn, said the Marine Highway Corridor designation gives the city and the region validation of the multi-modal location where river, road and railroad transport are available.

"It gives us another marketing tool to use. From a logistics perspective, it makes us sort of the epicenter of the nation," Wagner said.