WJ Editorial

Water Infrastructure has Always Been Federal Responsibility

As this issue of The Waterways Journal was going to press, two tows totaling 30 barges were moving military equipment from Clarksville, Tenn., to Alexandria, La.

Such heavy lifts of military equipment on the rivers are not an everyday occurrence; this was the first in several years. But they do occur, more safely and cost-effectively than with  other modes.

As important as commerce is, these military movements remind us that the purposes of our unparalleled inland waterways network include national security and military readiness. During World War II, the landing craft used in the Normandy invasion, built along the secure banks of the Mississippi and other rivers and moved by the “catfish navy” or “brown-water navy,” which President Eisenhower credited with a key role in winning the war, were sent downriver to the Gulf.

During the heyday of the U.S. space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) appreciated the transportation advantages of our waterways enough to use two special-purpose vessels, the Liberty Star and the Freedom Star, to haul heavy pieces of space equipment such as boosters or shuttle parts along the waterways and across the Gulf of Mexico, much more safely than on land.

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Suppose those military and space cargoes, many vital to national security, had had to pay tolls to private lock operators on their journeys?

That absurd scenario could become reality if President Trump’s proposed privatization of waterways infrastructure were ever to be seriously considered.

Private and local entities have private and local visions. Only the federal government has the vision and authority to direct national infrastructure to national purposes. That’s always been the case with the waterways network, but it also proved true for railroads and highways.

During World War I, private railroad operators whose networks proved inadequate for war mobilization begged the federal government to take over the railroads for the war’s duration.

Our much-praised but now crumbling federal highway system was also developed as much for national-security purposes as for commerce. As a young officer, Eisenhower had been deeply impressed by the roads quickly built by French Gen. Petain that supplied the French front, and later by German autobahns.

That’s one reason why it is so counter-intuitive that Trump, who otherwise wants to support the military, is proposing to cut 22 percent from the Corps of Engineers’ budget, and, in effect, abdicate from long-established federal infrastructure responsibilities.

But it is not as if Trump’s privatization plan would sacrifice national security for commerce: both would suffer. As Waterways Council Inc. has pointed out, under privatization, shippers would pay more and would pass their costs on to consumers. American exports would suffer and the U.S. would lose a major competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

The harm to the economy would mount into tens of billions of dollars and would directly work against other measures to boost it, including effects from the recently passed tax overhaul that have brought business and their capital back to the U.S. from abroad.

Now that the executive branch has abdicated, Congress carries the whole responsibility for asserting the proper federal interest in waterways infrastructure. It is unlikely that lock tolls will make any headway there, but in the fight ahead, the future of waterborne commerce may be at stake.