- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2015

VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) - After nearly 70 years of service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mat Sinking Unit is ready for an upgrade.

Col. John W. Cross, commander of the Vicksburg District, is working on a plan that would upgrade the unit making it safer and more efficient, compact and ensuring it has a home in Vicksburg for the next 100 years.

“The unit was designed and built in 1948 using 1948 technology,” Cross said. “If you had a car built in 1948, by now you’ve replaced the engine, transmission, brakes, windshield, glass and pretty much everything else, and after all that you still have a 1948 car with no seat belts, no backup camera, no airbags, no ABS and it’s terribly fuel inefficient.”

The unit deploys an army of men and women who toil for four months on the Mississippi River in an annual struggle to maintain the riverbanks for levee protection and to provide a safe navigation channel.

Cross is working with a team of engineers from Philadelphia to use off the shelf parts currently being used in automated factories and assembly lines.

“We want to use off the shelf parts readily available, we’re trying to invent the space shuttle,” he said. “We’re trying to make it as cost effective as possible.”

The timetable to unveil a sleeker, more efficient, modern Mat Sinking Unit is five years away.

“We’re estimating it’ll take about two years to design and three years to build,” Cross said. “Our initial estimates are $125 million for design and construction.”

“The fascinating thing on that is the district built this thing in 1948 for $4.9 million, which is $102 million in today’s dollars.”

The automation of the unit would nearly double its output now while increasing safety.

“Approximately 78 percent of injuries in the district come from the Mat Sinking Unit,” Cross said. “In the out years it would reduce the cost of injuries by at least one-third, because a lot of the injuries sustained out there are ones you would typically see around heavy machinery or lifting objects. They’re back sprains, neck sprains; they’re ankle injuries and occasionally the loss of an eye, finger, thumb or hand.”

Currently the unit can lay 200 mats a day. Automation would double that.

Another aspect of automation could result in a smaller unit.

“Right now this thing is so big, that sometimes it blocks the entire Mississippi River, and when that happens, my phone rings off the hook with transportations companies calling,” Cross said. “

Reducing the size of the unit would allow it to be used on tributaries of the Mississippi.

“We had a job at the Highway 465 bridge up the Yazoo a little bit and that job would have been perfect for the Mat Sinking Unit if we could have gotten it up there. It would have saved us millions of dollars.”

As the design phase moves to the building phase Cross would like to see the unit built as close to home as possible.

“We have expressed to Sen. (Thad) Cochran (of Mississippi) and Sen. (David) Vitter (of Louisiana) the desire for it to be built locally,” he said. “I think it could easily be done at one of the ports in the Baton Rouge or New Orleans area or Pascagoula even, there may be some parts built here. That way we can get our workers there while they are building this thing, and let them get familiar with it.”

“We need to make this a smooth transition,” Cross said. “We would come in one season, shut down the old one and keep it in port and then transition to the new one.”

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Information from: The Vicksburg Post, https://www.vicksburgpost.com


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