It's Time To Quit Pussyfootin' Around Infrastructure

The Waterways Journal
15 July 2013
WJ Editorial

That the U.S. infrastructure is going to hell in a handbasket is no longer news. It has not been news for decades.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), as it has clone dutifully every four years, recently issued its Report Card for American Infrastructure. If we follow true to form, most in government will most likely as they have done undutifully for almost 50 years, ignore the urgency of that report, say “Ho hum" and send a few billions to various nations around the world while paying lip service to infrastructure needs. It is time to quit pussyfootin' around infrastructure.

The key component of the “report card” is what it has been for years — no criticism intended of the ASCE. The report once again urgently expresses the updated figures. A government composed principally of individuals who ignore the nation's infrastructure will never solve the problems outlined by ASCE.

The Waterways Journal and organizations representing inland waterways and the towing industry have reported the infrastructure problems continually for decades, not just during those years coinciding with the ASCE report cards.

All classifications of infrastructure are in deep trouble, but we concentrate on waterways. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for the civil works programs. admits that the mechanism whereby projects can be proposed and ultimately completed needs replacement. It no longer works. According to the Corps. "Maintaining existing levels of unscheduled delays on inland waterways. and not further exacerbating delays, will require more than $13 billion by 2020. while current funding levels are expected to be just $7 billion during this period. Roughly 27 percent of these needs entail the construction of new lock and dam facilities, and 73 percent are estimated for the rehabilitation of current facilities."

At present. Corps project funding is stagnant and, therefore, according to the Corps best-case-scenario schedule, the 22 planned major construction and rehabilitation projects will not be complete until the year 2090. Is it not clear that most of those alive today will be dead by then? During that time. presidents will be elected, replaced or re-elected nearly 20 times. and each new crop of legislators will have to be educated.

According to the ASCE report. "Our nations inland water-ways and rivers are the hidden backbone of our freight network — they carry the equivalent of about 51 million truck trips each year. In many cases, the inland waterways system has not been updated since the 1950s, and more than half of the locks are over 50 years old. Barges are stopped for hours each day with unscheduled delays, preventing goods from getting to market and driving up costs. There is an average of 52 service interruptions a day throughout the system. Projects to repair and replace aging locks and dredge channels take decades to approve and complete. exacerbating the problem further."

Moving over 12,000 miles of waterways and through 200 lock chambers is cargo valued at more than $152 billion annually. Though traffic on the waterways has remained stable in recent years. the Department of Transportation projects that it will increase over the next 25 years.

Inland waterways tie into ocean ports, and it is estimated that 346 million tons of goods were transferred from inland waterways to deep-water ports in 2010, primarily for export. A major problem is that as the system deteriorates, the price of services has increased. particularly since 2005. ASCE wrote. Ninety per-cent of locks and dams on the U.S. inland waterway system experienced some type of unscheduled delay or service interruption in 2009. These delays cost industry and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The report said, "For 2011, the total number of hours of delay experienced by barges through-out the entire inland waterway system reached the equivalent of 25 years. The greatest total delay in 2011 at a particular lock was at the Markland Lock on the Ohio River, with 52,032 hours. The Ohio and Upper Mississippi systems have a disproportionate share of delays compared to other rivers across the country."

The Laborers' International Union of North America echoes the ASCE view that the U.S. infrastructure is near failing. To understand this issue clearly. readers must know not only of the outstanding performance we presently attribute to the infrastructure — and it is outstanding compared to many other countries — but we must compare it with national needs and "what performance could be" if we maintained the infrastructure properly.

ASCE believes we must establish a national freight strategy and policy that incorporate all modes of transportation. including waterways and ports, draw on successful state-level strategies. and include other key stakeholders such as shippers, retailers, and manufacturers.

We should "increase overall spending on inland waterways and secure additional financing for projects, either by increasing the barge fuel tax or implementing a user fee for the inland waterway system," the report says. Inland transporters have already agreed to higher fuel taxes, but object to other forms of user taxes.

Finally, the report says we should "prioritize capital projects according to risk and reliability, as well as economic return."

First and foremost, we (the WJ) maintain. everyone in government trust consider the importance of the U.S. infrastructure for what it is, and respond accordingly. Otherwise it will be the same old story of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.