Raising the Grade:  Why We Should Invest in Our Inland Waterways
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Raising the Grade:  Why We Should Invest in Our Inland Waterways
Kathryn Clay
/ Categories: Blog

Raising the Grade:  Why We Should Invest in Our Inland Waterways

Many ILTA terminal members partner closely with barge companies to keep goods moving in and out of their facilities, contributing to local economies and interstate commerce. Some ILTA companies like Canal Barge are both terminal operators and barge operators. These companies have a special appreciation for the importance of our national waterways network. 

Once every five years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues an updated assessment of the state of our national infrastructure, rating components ranging from freight rail to transit, highways to broadband, and posts and waterways. In early March, ASCE released the latest edition of its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.  The report is a wake-up call for policymakers, shining a light on the immense need for greater investment in improvements and maintenance of our national infrastructure.  Of all the 17 infrastructure categories ASCE rated, inland waterways received one of the lowest scores – a D-plus.  

Our national waterway network is comprised of approximately 12,000 miles of inland navigation channels. Inland waterways are an important part of the multimodal freight network, and nearly 830 million tons of cargo are moved on the inland waterways system annually. The network is especially crucial to the agricultural industry, which relies on waterways to move and export wheat, soybeans, and other goods to domestic and international markets in a cost-effective manner.  In general, projects along the inland waterways system yield a substantial return on investment. ASCE estimates that for every $1 of investment in infrastructure, between $2 and $3 is generated in economic activity around the U.S. over time. 

Inadequate funding for maintenance and rehabilitation activities leads to deterioration in locks and dams, leading to unplanned system outages. The inland waterways system reports a $6.8 billion backlog in construction projects and ongoing lock closures — totaling 5,000 hours in unplanned outages between 2015 and 2019. This hampers the industries that rely on the waterways to get their goods to market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates delays cost up to $739 per hour for an average tow, or $44 million per year. In addition to food products, the inland waterways move raw materials. 

The Biden administration has voiced its intention to make investments in infrastructure a landmark issue. ASCE gave America’s overall infrastructure a score of C-minus, which certainly confirms the need for investment. Moreover, the lackluster inland waterways score makes a strong case for prioritizing policy reforms and funding mechanisms to ensure investments in inland. 

Below is a list of the items ASCE says we need to prioritize to raise the grade. We, at ILTA, share this goal and support these items. 

  • Give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the authority to manage a project from start to finish and ensure sufficient and timely appropriations from Congress to avoid costly stop-and-start of construction that has traditionally taken place.  

  • Develop and implement a standardized measurement for delays on the system. 

  • Fund waterways projects at the authorized levels and do so consistently, passing a Water Resources Development Act on a two-year cycle. 

  • Ensure that full use of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund continues to be appropriated. ·   

  • Increase the amount spent on operations and maintenance of the inland waterways each year by providing more robust appropriations and consider a prioritization method that can more strategically direct limited funds to needy projects. 

  • Modify the cost sharing for future spending on construction and major rehabilitation projects to require 25% of the project cost to be paid for by the IWTF and the remaining 75% to be derived from the General Fund. 

As the Biden administration and Congress turn to the infrastructure debate, ILTA intends to urge lawmakers to provide adequate funding to inland waterways and all the modes of transportation that allow movement of the essential products in and out of terminals. 


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