Trump’s Chance to Rebuild America’s Inland Waterways
River-based commerce supports over half a million jobs and relies on crumbling dams, locks
Infrastructure has become a hot topic, courtesy of President Donald Trump’s pledge to pursue a $1 trillion vision to rebuild the nation after Congress has dealt with tax reform and health care.
But what exactly will be considered an “infrastructure” project? News reports have indicated those funds could be directed toward everything from bridges to sewer systems, but also veterans hospitals and broadband telecommunications. Often we hear of infrastructure as it relates to roads, rail and runways, but there is a fourth “R” that we cannot forget: rivers.
One 15-barge, dry-cargo tow is equal to 1,050 trucks on our nation’s highways or 216 rail cars and six locomotives.
There are more than 12,000 miles of navigable river waterways in the United States, with 92 commercially operated sites for locks, which serve as elevators to raise or lower the water depth so that boats can navigate across all of the interconnected waterways.
More than half of the locks and dams on our nation’s inland river system were built in the 1920s and 1930s during President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Locks and dams were designed for a 50-year life span, but have exceeded this by decades and require recapitalization.
Commercial towboats pushing barges on the inland waterways system transport more than 60 percent of export grain, 22 percent of petroleum products, and 15 percent of the coal used for electricity. If — and when — a major lock fails, these important products bound for domestic use and for export will sit idle. In addition to agricultural and energy commodities, jet fuel for overnight package service, de-icer headed to airports, salt destined to treat icy roads so that school buses and cars can safely reach their destinations, and fertilizer for the spring planting season are at risk.
A critical link in the transportation supply chain, our inland waterways system is often out of sight, out of mind. But consider these facts:
In addition to transporting freight, locks and dams provide flood control, hydropower, municipal and industrial water supply, and recreational opportunities. They also have national security and military deployment benefits for the nation.
In 2015, 575.5 million tons valued at $229 billion traveled on our inland waterways system. Shippers, and ultimately consumers, save $20.37 per ton of cargo compared to other modes, or $12.3 billion annually ($13.7 billion annually if you include the Great Lakes).
There are currently 24 authorized, priority lock and dam projects that could be competed at a cost of $8.7 billion in capital investment, which could modernize the inland waterways for the next two decades. Given that every $1 invested in our inland waterways returns more than $10 to our nation’s economy in transportation cost savings, it is a very good return on that investment.
Barge transport is the most fuel-efficient form of surface transportation, able to move cargo four times farther than trucks on one gallon of fuel. Trucks move a ton of cargo 145 miles on a single gallon of fuel; rail, 477 miles. But barges can haul freight 647 miles on that gallon of fuel. Without the waterways option, 49 million truck trips could be required annually, or a line of trucks that would circle the equator nearly 13 times.
Towboats and barges also have the least environmental impact and the cleanest emissions rate of cargo per ton-mile among surface modes. Moving identical amounts of cargo by rail generates 30 percent more carbon dioxide than by barge, and trucks generate 1,000 percent more emissions than barges.
And without the barge capacity for cargo, the impact on highway traffic congestion is enormous. One 15-barge, dry-cargo tow is equal to 1,050 trucks on our nation’s highways or 216 rail cars and six locomotives. To provide some dimension to the carrying capacity of one barge, one barge load of wheat could produce 2.5 million loaves of bread or nearly one loaf for every man, woman and child in the state of Kansas. Petroleum products like gasoline are carried in even larger barges; just one liquid tank barge can hold enough gas to keep about 2,500 cars running.
The inland waterways support around 541,000 jobs, worth more than $29 billion to the U.S. economy. If new investment could be made to the inland navigation system on an accelerated modernization plan of 10 years, up to 15,000 new jobs with an annual economic value of about $800 million, just in the construction sector alone, could become available. Inland rivers can support the exports for an expected world population of more than nine billion in the year 2050.
Despite its importance, inland waterways funding and maintenance budgets historically have been woefully low. The Corps of Engineers, which maintains the locks and dams, now must operate on a “fix as fail” basis. This means the Corps cannot do preventative maintenance, and has no spare parts when things break — and they do, often! Barges moving commodities must endure months of delays when there are emergency closures. Consumers ultimately pay higher costs, and thousands of more trucks congest our highways, when products must be diverted to other modes.
When assessing our nation’s freight transportation needs, rivers should not be forgotten among railroads, roadways, and runways. Rivers allow America’s critical commodities — grain, coal, agricultural inputs, steel, petroleum products, chemicals, and aggregate materials — to be used domestically and reach export markets in the most cost-competitive way.
When seeking transportation freight solutions, the fourth “R” for rivers is a great return on investment.
Michael J. Toohey is President/CEO of Waterways Council, Inc., Washington, D.C.