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Mississippi traffic fights low water as work on huge new lock begins

"Tow boat" operators on the lower Mississippi River are struggling to keep their cargo barges from going aground while dredges operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers try to keep the channel open. Meanwhile, work has started on a project that will remove a bottleneck betwee the upper and lower parts of the greatest waterway in the United States.

After years of controversy, Lock and Dam 26 at Alton, Ill., some 40 miles north of St. Louis, finally is to be replaced by a new facility twice its size. The Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for construction on the river, has been among those pushing for the new lock to increase barge traffic. Trying to stop the project, or at least reduce its scope, have been enviromentalists and railroad interests.

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Now the corps, which recommended the new lock in 1968, is driving piles in the first phase of the $800 million project, due for completion in 1987.

A more immediate problem for barge line operators and the corps is the below-normal flow in the lower river -- the result of last summer's drought and normal freezing conditions along northern stretches of the Mississippi system. This week the river was closed to barge traffic in sections near Memphis, Tenn., and Paducah, Ky. The US Coast Guard reported 69 towboats and 776 barges grounded between Dec. 24 and Jan. 5.

The Corps of Engineers is carrying out emergency dredging to keep the river open, and operators are loading barges lighter to avoid grounding. The water flow is expected to remain down until the spring.

Looking beyond the immediate problem, barge operators argue a second new lock should be added to the project at Alton. They say the first phase will simly remove the severe restrictions on present traffic. Additional capacity is urgently needed, the bargemen insist, if the US is to tap the west export potential of the Midwest's corn fields and coal reserves.

Environmentalists warn that before freight traffic on the Mississippi is increased, there should be careful study of possible threats to the environment and to city populations straddling the waterway, already crowded with hazardous cargoes.

Railroad operators also took askance of additional spending on river transportation. They see it as "unfair government subsidization" for a competing system.

Although opponents of the new lock were not able to block it, they did win some concessions.

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For the first time, waterway users are being charged a fuel tax to help pay for new facilities along 26,000 miles of freight- carrying US rivers.

And Congress has ordered the Upper Mississippi River Basin Commission to report on possible environmental and economic impacts before approving any further expansion of the facilities on that part of the river.

Barge operators argue the fuel tax and impediments to expanding traffic on waterways only add to the nation's overall transportation costs. They would like the river system improved as rapidly as possible to take advantage of the low ton/mile cost of shipping by barge compared with rail or highway.

Government and private studies forecast a doubling in barge traffic over the next 20 years. The deciding factor is expected to be an energy-short economy -- it will be increasingly difficult for road or rail to compete with the efficiency of transporting 40,000-ton bulk cargoes in barges pushed by a single tow boat.

Removing the bottleneck at Lock and Dam 26 will increase traffic flow and cut costs. This could cause problems for railroads, once the new lock opens, if there is no increase in grain and coal shipments from the upper Midwest. But if both US and overseas predictions are correct, steadily increasing foreign demand f or US exports will keep both barges and railroads busy.

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