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The Woeful State of U.S. Inland Waterways and its Effect on Grain Trade

Of the total U.S.’s $40 billion in grain and soybean exports, 60 percent are transported by river barges along U.S. waterways. However, delays along the U.S. inland waterways are worsening each year, negatively affecting agricultural commerce for the world’s top grain exporter.

This fall, a 50 mile-long line of grain barges and other transport boats were at a standstill on the Ohio River, waiting for the river to re-open after traffic was halted due to a missing section of a wooden dam near Locks & Dam No. 52 near Paducah, Kentucky. The shutdown was the second in as many months for one of the country’s busiest locks that sees flow-through of $22 billion in commodities every year.

The problem at Lock 52 has been listed for repair by the Army Corps of Engineers for 30 years now, and is a symptom of a system of 25,000 miles of waterways increasingly under strain as repeated bumper harvests raise demand. At this point, the majority of the country’s 239 locks are past their 50-year lifespan, while half the vessels on the inland waterways now experience average delays of 121 minutes per lock as of 2014.

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