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A bipartisan funding request aims to update antiquated locks on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers

The Peoria Lock and Dam located in Creve Coeur has a 600-foot chamber where water is leveled to ensure safe passage for barges.
Hannah Alani
The Peoria Lock and Dam located in Creve Coeur has a 600-foot chamber where water is leveled to ensure safe passage for barges.

A $120 million earmark request for the upcoming fiscal year's federal budget could fund long-awaited upgrades to antiquated locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Congressmen Eric Sorensen and Darin LaHood are both requesting the money for the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program. The funding would target the Peoria and LaGrange locks on Illinois River, and locks 20 through 25 on the Mississippi River, impacting Quincy and several cities in Missouri.

Peoria and LaGrange still use outdated wicket dams that fell out of use elsewhere decades ago.

"Our locks were constructed in the 1930s for steamboats. We no longer have steamboats," said Robert Sinkler, the executive coordinating director for Corn Belt Ports and a former commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District. "They're way past their design life. And it's just time to modernize and upgrade them."

A typical barge tow doesn't fit into the current 600 foot chambers on the Illinois River. It must be broken down into two pieces, passed through the chamber on multiple trips, and reassembled on the other side before the barge tow can move on.

"It more than doubles the amount of time it takes to send a barge through the dam," said Andrew Larson, director of government relations for the Illinois Soybean Association. "And of course, that blocks traffic up and downstream. So you're certainly taking a lot more time to make commerce move, and the longer it takes commerce to move, the more expensive it is to ship those goods."

Sinkler said new 1,200 foot chambers will not only be more efficient by allowing barges to move through in a single trip, but less hazardous, too.

"It is just unsafe to have crews out there, especially in the wintertime, to break the barges in two just to go through a lock. And especially when there's ice out on the barge deck. So it's just the right thing to do," he said.

Larson said constructing new 1,200 foot locks next to the existing 600 foot chambers will allow for two way traffic for smaller vessels, and create more consistency by ensuring there's a way through even if one chamber is down for maintenance.

"We export 60% of our soybeans out of Illinois, and the vast majority of what we export those on the inland waterways down to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico is via barge," Larson said. "So definitely a huge gateway for Illinois soybeans to go to market, and making sure that system is reliable and operates with absolute certainty is of utmost importance for soybean exports."

Sinkler said the bipartisan infrastructure bill included funding to advance construction on the locks in the Upper Mississippi River system, and the additional funding from the earmark would enable that construction program to continue.

"We're very excited that there's bipartisan congressional interest in advancing this larger construction program. It means jobs, but most importantly, for the Corn Belt Ports, it ensures that we will have safe, reliable and modern access to global markets for years to come," he said.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.