Inland Waterways Still Vital Asset for Tri-State

27 May 2016

One of Collis P. Huntington's big ideas after the Civil War was to connect his Chesapeake and Ohio rail line with the nation's inland waterways and expand commerce into the Midwest.
Huntington was founded in 1871 on the banks of the Ohio River as part of that plan, and our region has been involved in river transportation ever since.

Today, most of us may think shipping in terms of trucking and Fed Ex, but the Tri-State's river and rail connections are still a vital part of the nation's commercial transportation system - especially when it comes to commodities and the "big stuff."

Even with the slowdown in the coal industry, the West Virginia river systems that make up the Port of Huntington Tri-State is still the second largest inland port in the country, handling billions in coal, construction materials, petroleum products and chemicals every year. That work contributes about $1.6 billion to the West Virginia economy and supports more than 9,000 jobs, according to the Waterways Council.

That is important to today's economy, but it may be even more important to our nation's future economy, because almost every way you look at it, waterways transportation is cleaner, safer and efficient.

For example, one 15-barge tow can carry a load that would require 216 rail cars and six locomotives or 1,050 large semi-tractor trailers, according to industry estimates.

That also translates into significant fuel and emissions savings. When it comes to the amount of fuel used to move a ton of cargo, barges are about 25 percent more efficient than rail and four times more efficient than trucks.

But in order to keep shipping moving smoothly over the inland waterways, the nation needs to invest in the lock and dam systems that make barge traffic possible. That infrastructure has been deteriorating for years, while the funding stream for repairs and maintenance was tied up by a few costly projects.

The Water Resources Reform Development Act in 2014 has done much to improve that picture, industry representatives say. But there is still a great deal of work to be done, and some of the projects are still decades away.

As our region works to build its position in shipping and logistics, it is critical to remember that the inland waterways are still one of our greatest assets, and our representatives in Washington need to champion efforts to upgrade the waterways infrastructure.