Deadlines are made to be broken

By Matt Reese

I do not know where they learned this, but my children are experts at stall-tactics to delay bedtime. The kids’ bedtime is usually around 8:00. Sometimes we make this deadline and sometimes we do not, but my precocious stallers of slumber have the ability to push back bedtime 10 or 15 minutes, maybe even a half an hour, through various schemes.

After getting bathed, dressed and saying prayers, I will tuck my son into bed and he will look at me with the saddest eyes he can muster, conjure up his sweetest little boy tone and say, “Daddy, I’m hun-gy.”

He knows I am a sucker for this and I will inevitably go get him something semi-healthy to munch on. Then, after the snack, “Daddy, I’m firsty.”

If I have reservations about putting my child to bed hungry, I am certainly not going to put him to bed thirsty. I get him a little glass of water, which he eagerly gulps down. Then, of course, he needs to use the restroom after drinking the water (and we all know the problems that can result from ignoring this request). Then, after being tucked in again, he suddenly realizes that, after eating the snack, he would need to brush his teeth. What kind of parent would deny their child’s request for dental hygiene? Before I know it, I have a hydrated, well-fed son with fresh breath who is 45 minutes late for bedtime.

Similar tactics of stalling and delays were on display on a recent locks and dams tour of the Ohio River. The event itself was great. We rode on a riverboat and passed through a lock to see firsthand how it works. These are very impressive structures that are necessary to permit boats passage through a dam that creates a water level change. The dams are needed to even out the water depth for barges and other large watercraft to keep them from running aground in shallow spots on the River.

This lock on the Ohio River lowers barges around 25 feet to the water level below the dam.

As aging U.S. locks continue to deteriorate, we will start falling behind the rest of the world that is rapidly developing transportation infrastructure. The growing risk of a catastrophic collapse of our inland water transportation system demands some attention.

The concern about this problem is not a new one. I have been writing stories about the aging locks and dams for many years. The shipping industry has been working on this issue for a while as well. In fact, the massive Olmsted Locks and Dam Replacement Project is well underway to overhaul the locks and dam in one of the most crucial parts of the nation’s water system.

Olmsted is about 17 miles upstream of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the locks at this location handle more volume than any other place in America’s inland navigation system. The construction method for this massive undertaking is similar to building with giant 3,900-pound LEGOs that are 125 by 102 by 30 feet. At completion, this massive project will produce average annual economic benefits of more than $800 million by reducing transport time through the Olmsted locks from five hours to less than an hour. Very impressive.

This Olmsted update message on the recent boat trip was delivered to us by a very nice man from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who could hardly contain his excitement about the project. He beamed with pride about this accomplishment of mankind over the natural power of the River. What an accomplishment!

This engineer then went on to tell us the problem with the great accomplishment at Olmsted — it is not accomplished yet. Construction funding for this massive project was authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 1988 and was initially anticipated to take around seven years at a cost of around $700 million, give or take. Now, you may want to re-read — that was 1988, as in I-was-in-junior-high-24-years-ago 1988. As it stands, completion of the project is slated for 2020 at a cost of $3.1 billion, give or take, maybe.

From that point on, the nice, smart engineer’s presentation sounded a bit more like my son before bedtime with excuse after excuse about why the project was so grossly past deadline and above budget. In what other profession could you underestimate a deadline by more than 20 years and still be employed?

Now, to be fair, the challenge for the Army Corps of Engineers is daunting. A project of this magnitude has never been done. The stakes are high and the costs are astronomical. In addition, the oversight and funding for the project is controlled by Congress, and the shifting political winds over the last two decades have undoubtedly slowed the process significantly. So, there really are some legitimate excuses, but 24 years and more than $2 billion beyond initial allocations require quite a bit of excusing.

So, this nice, intelligent engineer stood in front of a group of successful farmers (some who have recently been to see the incredible progress of the Panama Canal), leaders in business, members of the private transportation sector and city and state officials, and tried to explain away two decades of budget busting missed deadlines with no one to hold accountable. The crowd wasn’t buying it. Something is wrong with the system.

Looking to the future of the woes of locks and dams, the Olmsted project delays have slowed any thoughts of similarly important improvements in other locks and dams around the country. Proposed start and completion dates for some of the other most-needed locks and dams projects sprawl out over the next 70 years.

Maybe I’ll bring the importance of meeting deadlines up in a philosophical discussion with my son later this evening. He is always particularly talkative and inquisitive right around 8:00. And, in the end, maybe I shouldn’t get so flustered by his bedtime stalling tactics. I guess it could be that he is looking ahead to the future and training for employment in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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