Guest Editorial: Help The Corps Tell Our Story!

By Deb Calhoun, V. Autumn Pittman and Justin Carlson

The Waterways Journal can be counted on to educate the waterways industry about things it may not know about. We take that opportunity with this commentary to discuss the need for and process surrounding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) collection of industry data and their compilation of statistics. It is critically important to have information and data that helps us all to understand what commodities are moving, the volume and value of that freight, trends over time of waterways cargo movements, activity on specific river segments or the inland system in total, and details on specific navigation projects.

At Waterways Council Inc.’s (WCI) November 2017 board of directors’ meeting in Mobile, Ala., a discussion took place about the Corps’ Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center’s (WCSC) mission via the Planning Center of Expertise for Inland Navigation and Risk-Informed Economics Division (PCXIN-RED), located in Huntington, W.Va. Authorized under the River and Harbor Act of 1922, WCSC’s mission is to collect and supply navigation data and information for U.S. channels, ports, waterways, and Corps projects, including domestic and U.S. foreign commodity and vessel movements. WCSC and PCXIN-RED have partnered since 1985 to accomplish the domestic commodity and vessel movement data collections.

All information that concerns vessel operations and/or statistical data is protected by the Trade Secrets Act.

The primary mission of the PCXIN-RED is to improve the quality and timeliness of Corps inland navigation planning studies and products, and it relies heavily on navigation data to do so. The navigation data also helps to set priorities for new investment and rehabilitation, manage operations and maintenance (O&M) of existing projects, and support legislation and congressional initiatives. Solid data also helps the news media to get our story right and to tell it accurately. Improving navigation data collection, and in turn USACE planning studies, ultimately benefits all of us in the inland waterways industry to communicate our important story about why the system is so vital to the nation.

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The Corps counts on industry to provide accurate data in a timely manner to ensure that the importance of our inland waterways can be effectively demonstrated. Any movement of domestic waterborne commercial vessels should be reported to the Corps within 30 days of the close of the month during which the movement occurred (33 CFR Ch. 11 Section 207.800). Information collected via Vessel Operating Reports (VORs) includes vessel operating company name, vessel name/type, commodity and their tonnages, routing information, origin/destination docks, and departure/arrival dates and drafts. Currently, USACE sends out past-due reminders for operating companies 30, 60, or 90+ days beyond the last day of the month.

While the above mentioned regulation provides for data to be collected on a monthly basis, it often takes far longer to receive responses by companies. During 2016, more than half of all submissions were delinquent, which limits the processing time, impacts the quality, and delays the distribution of this highly sought nationally compiled data.

Much of this data is submitted electronically (via Excel, XML or similar format); however, many reports are still submitted via hard copy, hand-written reports, which require additional time to collect and code into USACE databases. No matter what format this information is given in, numerous data checks are performed to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the data. This often requires back-and-forth communication with operating companies to ensure that issues are resolved. This affects the efficiency and timeliness of aggregating and releasing the data so that industry may utilize it. This is often the reason the “most current data” is two years behind. And those of us in waterways advocacy organizations understand that timely data and research facilitates decision planning for today and beyond, rather than “in the rear-view mirror.”

To improve its efficiency, the Corps is reworking its data release schedule, seeking operator automation, reviewing its technology, updating points of contact, and increasing further communication with industry. The data collection and dissemination process is under review to determine how companies can more easily comply with deadlines and submission.

“Research is creating new knowledge,” said astronaut Neil Armstrong. Industry, let’s help the Corps to help us, particularly during this critical period as infrastructure investment moves front and center within the administration and Congress. Working together in this important endeavor will help our cause ahead for a modern, reliable, efficient inland waterways system.

Deb Calhoun is senior vice president of Waterways Council Inc.; V. Autumn Pittman is chief-data management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and Justin Carlson is a statistician for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.