Foreign Governments Improve Waterways While We Fiddle

The Waterways Journal
7 March 2011

Once again, we delve into the failure of the Obama administration to support maintenance and modernization of the inland waterways infrastructure. The marine industry and related components are being held hostage by an administration that spoke favorably about inland Waterways transportation but has not followed through.

We are reminded often that foreign governments are investing in water transportation while Nero fiddles and Rome burns. Maritime leaders are sometimes asked why we are not improving and making more use of our waterways. Unfortunately. these queries have been presented for more than a decade.

It is bewildering to us because President Obama has stressed continually the importance of creating jobs to ease unemployment woes. Improving waterways infrastructure would create jobs and help us to catch up on waterways maintenance that has been lagging for decades.

It is bewildering to us because government insists that protecting the environment is one of its most important goals. Water transportation is the most environmentally friendly mode of transport in existence other than, perhaps, pipeline.

It is bewildering to us because clean air and reducing polluting emissions is near the forefront of the administration's agenda (tax and trade legislation and clean air regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency). Increased use of water transportation along Americas marine highways—not just those in the newly touted "highway" program—would help to stem the rapidly increasing number of trucks that travel our highways. It would reduce fuel consumption and save on other natural resources (rubber. oil. et al).

It is bewildering to us because highway safety is on the lips of many in government, and increased use of water transport would help to stem the growing congestion on highways, thus helping to prevent accidents.

It is bewildering because a vast amount of U.S. exports and imports depend upon water transportation, which is the cheapest form of transportation where it is available..

While trains and barges often carry similar cargoes, they also carry cargoes particularly suited to the individual modes—less costly bulk materials, and overly large and heavy cargoes for barges. While these modes are competitive, they are also complementary, and in many instances cannot exist without each other.

We know Congress is aware of all we have delineated here. We know a majority of congressional delegates have in the past given approval to a new Water Resources Development Act, which now has gone nowhere. The president and the administration are the stumbling blocks. Infrastructure repairs are faltering, and unemployment figures remain higher than the president predicted they would be. A good guess would be that up to 90 percent of all products offered in some major stores are made in foreign lands.

Poor government management has caused many of the problems we face today. On March 1 the Government Accountability Office released a report covering only a portion of government activity, and it identified hundreds of billions of dollars in duplication and waste. The findings support the contention that government is too large to be efficient. The GAO reported it had gone over only a portion of government operations and found some $200 billion in waste.

In the meantime, while Rome is burning (or we are sleeping) we read that Russia. China, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and India are subsidizing their marine highways equally instead of favoring gas-guzzling trucks. One reader notes that heavy trucks—not passenger cars—destroy our bridges and highways. "Why build ever more highways and bridges when we don't use our neglected marine highways?" he asks. "Waterways are the greenest of green transport systems."

In European news. major organizational entities have issued a joint manifesto urging the European Union to "lift all barriers to make full use of its existing asset—the waterway network."

Http:// carries news of dozens of projects focusing on the shifting of cargo to water transport and a wide variety of efforts being undertaken to enhance this goal. We have been reporting these facts for years. Apparently few pay attention.

What's wrong with this picture? What's wrong is that for a small fraction of the amount of money our government has invested in economic stimulus (much unsuccessfully), our inland waterways system could be entirely rehabilitated and improved, thus protecting the environment, reducing transportation costs and increasing highway safety.

Why doesn't the administration do it?