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Troubled US Waters Magnify Investment Needs

Stephen A. Curtis
Board Director
American Society of Civil Engineers


This past summerís drought, which has continued into winter, has reduced water levels throughout the Mississippi River Basin and its tributaries to historic lows and severely impacted commercial shipping traffic on the river—the main cost-effective transportation artery extending from the Great Lakes, through Americaís heartland to the Gulf of Mexico.

The 2012 drought has impacted shipping on the Mississippi River Basin by restricting vessel traffic, creating longer transit times, reducing vessel load carrying capacity, increasing vessel groundings, and creating impassable waterways and vessel logistics problems. Shipping rates have fluctuated widely as a result; other reasons being greater fuel needs, additional barges and increased labor to move the same amount of goods.

The typical tow on the Mississippi or Ohio rivers has 15 barges; a 1-foot loss of draft decreases the capacity of the tow by 3,000 tons. On the lower Mississippi, tows are larger, with 30 to 45 barges, and a 1-foot loss of draft results in a decreased capacity exceeding 9,000 tons, which is the equivalent of adding 130 tractor-trailer trucks to the highways or 570 rail cars to the train system. To maintain barge traffic on the river and its prime tributaries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken extraordinary measures to deepen and widen areas of immediate concern by additional dredging and, in some cases, blasting rock river bottom.

Traffic on the Mississippi is just one example of how the system of inland waterways and marine ports plays a vital role in moving imported and exported goods through the U.S. In 2010, the cargo transported on the national system was valued at $152 billion. More than 566 million tons of goods move through the system annually, more than half of which is coal and petroleum products.

Furthermore, more than 70 million metric tons of grain, soybeans and other food are transported within the U.S. each year via the system. With this amount of goods moving on the 12,000 miles of inland waterways, the impact of the 2012 drought is severe. According to the American Waterways Operators (AWO) association, a 1-inch drop in water level decreases the carrying capacity of a single barge by 17 tons of cargo. Losing 1 foot of a bargeís draft results in the loss of 204 tons of cargo capacity per barge. Normally loaded 12-foot draft barges reduced to a 7.5-foot draft equates to losing about 54 trailers of goods per barge, according to AWO.

In addition to drought, the performance of the inland waterway system is threatened by scheduled and unscheduled delays caused by insufficient funding for operation and maintenance needs of the locks that govern traffic flow. A total of 90 percent of the systemís locks and dams experienced unscheduled delays in 2009. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, maintaining existing levels of unscheduled delays on inland waterways, and not further exacerbating delays, will require almost $13 billion in cumulative investment by 2020.

To remain competitive, U.S. marine ports and inland waterways will require investment beyond the $14.4 billion expected over the next seven years. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reports that with an additional investment of $15.8 billion between now and 2020, the U.S. can protect $270 billion in U.S. exports, $697 billion in GDP, 738,000 jobs annually, $872 billion in personal income and $770 per year per household.

ASCE said that traffic on U.S. inland waterways is expected to increase by 51 million tons of freight from 2012, an 11 percent increase. By 2040, it is expected to exceed 118 million tons above 2012 levels, a 25 percent increase. To meet this anticipated growth, total public investment would have to exceed $30 billion by 2020. This includes navigational waterway-harbors dredging and operations, and maintenance dredging for inland waterways and marine ports.

Inadequate and unbalanced investments in essential transportation infrastructure have serious implications. It is necessary to do the work and make available the funds to keep U.S. vital waterways and harbors open for commerce. The productivity and competitiveness of the U.S. economy depends on it.

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