We have seen the crumbling bridges, downtrodden roads and declining railway systems. It is no secret that our infrastructure is both outdated and underfunded. President Trump drew attention to these deficiencies during his campaign, and those on both sides of the aisle agree — we have to do something about the state of the failing infrastructure in the United States.
I believe there needs to be more of a focus on building and maintaining our nation’s bridges, roads and railways. We are past due when it comes to maintenance and development projects, but we must not overlook an important part of infrastructure: our inland waterways.
Purpose and size of inland waterways
Each year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) releases a detailed report on the state of our country’s infrastructure. They break down each area and apply a grade based on a number of factors. According to their 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the United States has over 25,000 miles of inland waterways and 239 locks. The inland waterways provide navigable routes through 38 states and connect to both inland and ocean ports, assuring direct access to and from international markets. With this massive “water highway” at our fingertips, we have failed to maintain the aging infrastructure, resulting in a “D” letter grade in the report.
Currently, the inland waterways are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Over a half million people are in one way or another employed through the use of our inland waterways. More than 600 million tons of cargo (worth an estimated $229 billion) are transported annually through these “highways,” which amounts to 14 percent of all our domestic freight.
Problems facing our inland waterways
Despite employing a large number of Americans and providing an efficient way to transport cargo, the inland waterways have been neglected. Locks and dams were put in place to ensure efficient transportation, but they have far surpassed their “design life.” We have eclipsed their 50-year operational time limit as some locks are 70-80 years old.
As the list of deferred-maintenance projects grows, so too does the challenge to provide the necessary taxpayer investment to improve, or even sustain, our inland waterways. Since we have fallen short when it comes to keeping up our water highways, we have put ourselves in a position to experience economic struggles. The ASCE reported that 49 percent of vessels that traveled on our inland waterways to transport goods experienced delays. These delays lasted, on average, 121 minutes.
Efficiency of inland waterways
Why do efficient waterways matter? Not only do they transport 14 percent of all domestic freight, but it is significantly more efficient to move goods on the inland waterways than by truck or train. The Tennessee Valley Authority conducted a study that revealed that moving cargo through the inland waterways saves an estimated $10.67 per ton in comparison to other shipping methods. Meaning the U.S. economy saves $7 billion each year transporting cargo through these rivers.
Financial problems and solution
With hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods being transported through the inland waterways and billions of dollars in transportation savings, it is crucial we take the necessary steps to ensure our waterways remain cost-effective and timely.
While there have been efforts to improve certain aspects of our inland waterways, we have not been consistent in these efforts. The USACE estimates “overall investment needs of $4.9 billion over the next 20 years.”
Currently, both inland waterways construction and repair costs are shared by the federal government (through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund) and by users of the waterways (through a Trust Fund). The ASCE reports that “operation and maintenance costs for inland waterways are covered in full by the Federal Government.”
As for the waterways user Trust Fund, it is supported by a “29 cents per gallon tax on barge fuel, and cannot exceed expenditures in a given year. In April 2015, this user tax was increased by 9 cents for the first time since 1995 upon the urging of the Inland Waterways Users Board, in order to increase investment in the system.”
Federal government funds and a user Trust Fund have proven not to be enough. It is time we look into other financing options. Public and private partnerships have worked in the past, and I believe it could be the solution to the problems that face our current inland waterways.
Our inland waterways are an invaluable resource to our economy and have been overlooked for decades. It is time to change that and find a new way to finance the maintenance and repair costs necessary to ensure our inland waterways flourish.
• Howard P. “Buck” McKeon represented the people of the 25th Congressional District of California in the U.S. House of Representatives for 22 years and served as both the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and Chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Today, he is the CEO of McKeon Group, a consulting firm that provides strategic analysis, public relations, advocacy and comprehensive government relations for their clients.
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