The waterways industry is becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of U.S. transportation.
For months, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) officials have said they would like to see more freight move via water and less on the nation's highways. At the same time, though, congressional funding for waterways projects has been on a steady decline. At the end of the 2009 fiscal year, the balance in the Inland Waterways Trust Fund—which is funded by a combination of general revenue and barge fuel taxes—stood at $57.7 million, significantly lower than at any time in the past 17 years, according to data from trade group Waterways Council Inc. (WCI).
The latest snub came this week, when President Obama unveiled a $50 billion proposal to fund improvements to the nation's infrastructure. The White House announcement addressed the need to strengthen the highway, rail, and airport systems. The waterway system garnered nary a mention.
The slight did not go unnoticed by waterways interests. Cornel Martin, WCI's president and CEO, said the industry was "left disappointed and puzzled" over why waterways and port projects were excluded from the president's funding proposal.
"Our inland waterways not only support people who work on our rivers, but workers in our agricultural community and the many industries who rely on our waterways for affordable transportation of their goods, both domestically and for world markets," Martin said in a statement. "To not include and dismiss our nation's most environmentally sound, energy-efficient, and congestion-relieving mode of transportation, when its lock and dam infrastructure consistently earns a "D" grade, is unreasonable and unacceptable."
The inland waterways industry promotes itself as the nation's greenest transport mode. According to the WCI, barges produce 19.3 tons of carbon emissions per million ton-miles moved, compared with 26.9 tons for rail and 71.6 tons for trucks. In addition, the industry claims that barges can move one ton of cargo 576 miles on a gallon of fuel, compared with 413 miles by rail and 155 miles by truck. One tow of 15 barges can carry cargoes equal to what can be moved on 1,050 trailers and 216 railcars, the group said.
"Inland transportation has the lowest carbon footprint of the ... modes and has the best safety record," Martin said. "For all these reasons and more, the inland waterways industry remains a solution for the future, and its infrastructure is critical to maintain a modern and efficient system of transportation for cargoes like grain, petroleum, corn, coal, steel, and aggregates that the United States and the world rely upon."