White House Should Heed Biden When Considering Waterways

The Waterways Journal
28 March 2016

When Vice President Joe Biden visited the Port of New Orleans on February 17 to celebrate the seven-year anniversary of the economic stimulus and to tout the benefits of the port, his message sounded good. But as Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI) President and and Chief Executive Officer Michael J. Toohey said in an op-ed on March 15, “…despite Biden’s words, there is a significant disconnect between [his] shiny vision and the Obama administration’s proposed budget for investing in ports and inland waterways.”

Biden had declared, “We’re going to continue to push to grow America [and] continue to insist on the United States of America having the most modern infrastructure in the world.” According to Toohey, he recognized the importance of our waterways. “Freight shipments are expected to increase another 62 percent, well over 110 million tons per day in the next two decades,” Biden said, adding that the inland waterways stretch across 36 states and generate “hundreds of billions of dollars of growth and capital.”

 “Traditionally,” wrote Toohey, “when politicians promote the importance of infrastructure investment, they focus on roads, runways and bridges. Biden’s speech was a rare occasion when a politician paid attention to U.S. waterways, which are a crucial artery for U.S. goods to reach the world.”

But as Toohey said, there is that unfortunate disconnect between Biden’s message and the administration’s budget. He suggested that the White House listen carefully to Biden. “When assessing the nation’s freight transportation needs, rivers must not be forgotten,” Toohey wrote.

It is also unfortunate that waterways leaders and waterways publications like The Waterways Journal to have to keep repeating the benefits of water transportation. We’ve done it for more than a century.  Transportation officials around the world have recognized for decades the value of our inland waterways system. So why doesn’t the administration? Many of the locks and dams that were built with a shelf life of 50 years under the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt are in pitiful condition, due primarily to the underfunding of the civil works program. Instead of modernizing the system, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now operates on a “fix as fail” basis. Repairs sometimes cause months of delays.

Toohey wrote that if the administration has its way, inland waterways funding and maintenance (despite their importance) will decrease significantly. In the fiscal 2016 budget, Congress funded the Corps’ civil works mission at near record levels with $5.989 billion. The budget, he said, “was a welcome sign that Congress recognizes there is a backlog of waterways projects that must be addressed.” For fiscal 2017, the president proposed cutting the civil works mission funding by 23 percent.

In his op-ed, Toohey listed at length the many reasons why waterways should be properly funded: (1) The U.S. has 12,000 miles of navigable, interconnected waterways; (2) In 2014, barges carried 604 million tons of goods, valued at $232 billion; (3) Shippers and consumers save $20.37 per ton of cargo compared to other modes; (4) The waterways support 541,000 jobs worth $29 billion to the U.S. economy; (5) The safety record for inland operators is 18 times better than rail and 132 times safer than truck; (6) Towboats are more fuel-efficient and have the cleanest emissions rate of cargo per ton-mile among all surface modes; and (7) With new investments, the rivers could support 10,000 to 15,000 jobs just in the construction sector alone. But there are other towing industry attributes.

Barges lend themselves to the movement of cargoes too heavy and/or too large to move by truck or rail. When the Corps began selling off houses that provided residences for lock masters and assistant lockmasters in the 1970s, some of those structures were moved by barge. The military has moved equipment at less expense and with less theft (if any) than when equipment was moved by rail.  One liquid tank barge can hold enough gas to keep about 2,500 cars running for an entire year. One 15-barge dry cargo tow can keep 1,050 trucks off the highway. Safety improves when highway traffic is reduced.

Considering the desire to reduce highway congestion, the need to reduce pollutants, the growing demand for transportation and the savings that can accrue when shippers are able to use barge transportation, one wonders how the administration can, year after year, shortchange the waterways industry. Even when the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund brings in $1.6 billion annually, the administration skims off much of it to effect deficit reduction and fails to use the money for the purpose for which it was designed.

While Toohey’s op-ed mirrors arguments made over and over, it provides a beneficial list for any waterways stakeholders who care to visit his presentation. Just go to this link:  http://waterwayscouncil.org/featured/why-congress-must-fully-fund-waterway-projects/