Waterways need strategic planWaterways need strategic plan
June 19, 2015
Transportation board recommends prioritizing funding of waterways with greatest economic impact.
WHILE the U.S. inland waterway system covers a vast geographic area, its freight traffic is highly concentrated, and the system needs a sustainable and well-executed plan for maintaining system reliability and performance to ensure that its limited resources are directed where they are most essential, according to a new report from the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board.
More targeted operations and maintenance (O&M) investments informed by an asset management approach would prioritize locks and facilities that are in greatest need of maintenance and for which the economic impacts of disruption would be highest, the report adds.
The federal inland waterway infrastructure is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is funded through the Corps' navigation budget.
The system moves nearly 7% of all ton-miles of domestic cargo — primarily coal, petroleum, food and farm products, chemicals and crude materials. It consists of more than 36,000 miles of commercially navigable channels and about 240 working lock sites.
The chief and most expensive component of the inland waterway system is installing and maintaining lock and dam infrastructure to enable the upstream and downstream movement of cargo.
While many locks are more than 50 years old, lock performance correlates poorly with age, since many locks have been rehabilitated. Navigation could be improved by directing O&M resources toward major facilities with high volumes of traffic and where the time lost to shipping delays is significantly higher than the river average, the report notes.
About 50% of barge cargo moves on six major corridors — such as the Mississippi River, Illinois River and Ohio River — that represent 16% of the total waterway miles. Other inland waterway segments have minimal or no freight traffic.
While the distribution of funding toward more essential facilities is already occurring in the Corps' budgeting process, the report says a standard asset management approach to O&M spending has not been fully developed or deployed across all Corps districts.
Commercial navigation users pay a share of the system's construction costs through a fuel tax, but they pay none of the roughly $650 million annual O&M costs, which are funded through general tax revenues, the report explains.
"A system more reliant on user payments would provide needed revenue for maintenance and promote economic efficiency while being more consistent with the federal posture toward other freight transportation modes that are more dependent on user fees," the report suggests.
"Debates about funding for the inland waterways system and the roles of the federal government and users in paying for the system deserve renewed attention in light of shrinking federal budgets, declining appropriations and increasing maintenance needs for its infrastructure," said Chris Hendrickson, chair of the committee that wrote the report and a Hamerschlag University professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
"Without a funding strategy that emphasizes system preservation, maintenance projects may continue to be deferred, which would result in further deterioration and in a less cost-effective and less reliable system," Hendrickson added.
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