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Future River Infrastructure Condition

Planned Waterway Improvements

There are no current waterway improvement projects within the OKI region. However, there has been renewed focus at the federal level to make needed investments (regardless of mode), including those that improve water cargo movement. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has provided federal funding for improvements based on a number of measures. They include return on investment for the maintenance of locks and dams, as well as the overall maritime system to support growing use of and relief to congested roadways and rail corridors.

River Vessels

With regular maintenance, the lifespan of a river barge is about 25 to 30 years, with average age between 12 and 15 years. In 2022, the typical cost of a barge is $400,000 per vessel.

The average age of a tug in the U.S. is over 40 years old, with actual age depending on extent of use and level of maintenance and overhaul, with diesel being the exclusive engine fuel. The cost of a new tug can range from $750,000 to $10 million, depending on length, class, engine power, and other features. Repair and overhaul of tugs also varies a great deal. Some tugs in service on the Great Lakes were built nearly 100 years ago.   

(Source: Source: J. Bonello, C. Velandia Perico, J. Taylor, and T. Smith. The Maritime Fleet of the USA: Current Status and Options for the Future. Commissioned by The Ocean Conservancy. UMAS, London. (January 2022).)

Tug manufacturers are promising greater engine efficiencies with new equipment, using less diesel per ton-mile. However, diesel is expected to remain the dominant fuel source, as new technology is developed and tested over the next decade and older tugs are replaced. 

Material Handling Equipment

Equipment is required for transferring commodities to and from barges. Since there are no public ports in the OKI region, terminal owners are responsible for buying and maintaining their own equipment. Much of the handling equipment at terminals is past its life expectancy; but it is kept in operation through the ingenuity of terminal employees. In the past several years, cleaner, more efficient equipment­– such as cranes, material handlers, and conveyor systems — have come onto the market. As the cost of repair from frequent breakdowns, work delays, and lack of replacement parts escalate, private barge terminal operators are replacing outdated equipment as budgets permit.

Locks and Dams

The Captain Anthony Meldahl Locks and Dam is the only lock and dam in the OKI region. The dam received a major improvement in 2017, its first since opening in 1962. There are no plans for more improvements before 2050, the planning horizon year of this freight plan.


Pullies and cranes lift large metal wall.

Installation of Main Lock Chamber Miter Gates at Captain Anthony Meldahl Locks and Dam
Source: United States Army Corps of Engineers. (2017).


The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers regularly conducts dredging operations of navigable waterways throughout the country. The last dredging in the OKI region was for channel maintenance of the upstream approach to Captain Anthony Meldahl Locks and Dam, on the Ohio River (mile 436.2), where about 12,000 cubic yards of material was removed. Maintenance dredging at this location occurs about every year due buildup of sediment.

Barges require a relatively shallow draft or navigable water depth of between two feet, or so, when empty to up to 13 feet when fully loaded. Channels are dredged depending on the need to accommodate loaded barge movements.

Maritime Maintenance Technologies

Remotely Operated Vehicles

Similar to the use of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the pipeline industry, underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) provide the maritime industry a means of inspecting and maintaining waterborne vessels (barges, tugs, locks and dams). These inspections can be conducted by one or two people and being developed small enough to be placed into the water from a boat or dock.

Black electronic device with two fan-propellers.

Deep Trekker Revolution Underwater ROV
Source: Deep Trekker. (2023).

Smart Maintenance Systems

The goal of smart maintenance systems is to avoid freight delay caused by machinery breakdowns or work stoppages to run preventative inspections. Condition-based maintenance uses on-board sensors and integrated communication devices to provide real-time data collection and 24/7 asset performance reporting.

By integrating artificial intelligence (AI), smart technology can be applied to identify problems before they occur, allowing staff time to implement predictive maintenance.

Still under development for use in the maritime freight industry are technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and smart data storage. These technologies would enable three-dimensional models of machinery, AR information and VR training for staff with data available immediately, whether on-board or miles from a vessel’s destination.

(Source: Christian Velasco-Gallego. Revolutionising the Maritime Industry with Smart Maintenance. The Gist. The Glasgow Insight into Science and Technology. (February 24, 2021).)

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