Monday, September 01, 2014

US Inland Waterways Investments Support Ocean-Bound Economy

America often shortchanges its infrastructure needs.  That may change since the President signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014 into law.  The details on the WRRDA include a revised formula for funding lock improvements that do not hold the Inland Waterways Trust Fund hostage to a single installation.  The relevant House committee helpfully provides the bill's highlights.

The nation's waterborne commerce is vital to the economy, despite this report from Taxpayers for Common Sense that bemoans a decline in traffic volume on our waterways.  It may not have occurred to that group that traffic declines as waterways become less navigable and locks fall into disrepair.  This forces shippers to move by road and rail, which are more expensive per ton-mile than barge movements.   Lack of upkeep may very well be the reason waterborne commerce suffers.  The Congressional Research Service's May 2013 report on inland waterways provides a more balanced view of the cost-sharing funding arrangements for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF).

Data from NOAA's ENOW series show the economic importance of ocean-bound commerce.  The IWTF's primary arteries connect the Great Lakes and Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.  Substandard locks and dams on those rivers jeopardize a significant amount of barge traffic in grains, coal, and petrochemicals.  Try running a modern economy without affordable access to those feedstocks.

Public infrastructure is expensive.  Highways, ports, and waterway systems must be serviceable for commerce to proceed.  The Waterways Council noted how multiple stakeholders, from the public and private sectors, recognized the need for waterway infrastructure modernization.  The new funding and management mechanisms under WRRDA came just in time.