By Tom Polansek and Karl Plume
ABOARD THE OLIVER C. SHEARER, Ohio River (Reuters) – America’s worst traffic jam this fall occurred on the Ohio River, where a line of about 50 miles of boats hauling grains and other products turned into a waterborne parking lot, as ship captains waited for the river to reopen.
Such delays are worsening on the nation’s waterways, which are critical to commerce for the United States, the largest grain exporter in the world. Of the country’s $40 billion in annual grain and soybean exports, about 60 percent is moved by barges on rivers, including the Ohio.
The shutdown, caused by worn or missing sections of a dam, snarled traffic from early September into early November through Locks & Dam No. 52 near Paducah, Kentucky. It was the second shutdown in two months at No. 52, which is among the country’s busiest locks with about $22 billion a year of commodities flowing through it.
The lock, which has been earmarked for replacement by the Army Corps of Engineers for three decades, is one of many choke points along 25,000 miles of waterways used to transport everything from grains to consumer goods to coal. (Graphic: http://tmsnrt.rs/2AY9sim)
It is a system increasingly under strain. Surging shipments of soybeans and corn – due to record harvests – are overwhelming parts of the antiquated network and causing more frequent and severe backups, according to interviews with farmers, shippers, grains merchants and barge operators.
Reverberations have cut across the U.S. agricultural supply chain – and international markets. This fall, delays in moving crops downriver bumped up grain prices at export terminals along the Gulf Coast, opening up an advantage for global competitors such as Brazil.
Most of the country’s 239 locks have exceeded their half-century design lives, and nearly half the vessels that use the nation’s inland waterways now experience delays, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The average delay per lock has nearly doubled on the waterways since the beginning of the century, rising to 121 minutes in 2014 from 64 minutes in 2000, the group said.
An October National Waterways Foundation study said a major lock failure in the Midwest could cost shippers $1.5 billion per year in added costs and overwhelm existing rail and road capacity. Every barge can hold as much grain as 16 rail cars or 70 trucks.
The delays here and elsewhere are boosting prices for key goods including soybeans, and eating away at…