Webinar Illustrates Industry Concerns Over ‘Levels Of Service’ Regulation

A webinar offered by Inland Rivers, Ports & Terminals Inc. April 22 explained why some industry professionals are concerned about how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determines lock operation schedules on lesser used rivers.

The free webinar was one of three IRPT offered in place of its annual conference, which was canceled due to the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Dean Marlin, director of business development for Nicholas Enterprises Inc., which owns Freeport Terminals on the Allegheny River and Pittsburgh Intermodal Terminal on the Ohio, spoke first, helping to define the problem.

In July 2012, the Corps issued OPORD 2012-63, an official order entitled “IMTS Process Improvement, Standard Levels of Service,” commonly called the “levels of service” regulation. It limited lock operating schedules on rivers that historically had fewer metric tons of cargo passing through them. Rivers were designated as high-, moderate- or low-use, and individual lock operations varied by their level of use. Fifteen of the nation’s 27 rivers comprising the Inland Marine Transportation System (IMTS) were ultimately classified as low-use. Another four were classified as moderate-use.

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The regulation led to more cuts in lock operations scheduling in subsequent years, which Marlin said caused detrimental effects including: crippling the possibility of commercial growth along the low-use waterways; making the river industry cautious about the locks’ continued operation; and in some cases threatening the potential future economy of major U.S. metropolitan areas historically served by commerce along these rivers.

Marlin called the Allegheny River the proverbial canary in the coal mine for sounding the alarm of how the regulation is strangling lesser-used rivers. The 70-mile river has eight locks and was a beehive of commercial activity from the 1920s to the 1980s with barges carrying coal, liquid bulk, manufacturing and agricultural chemicals and aggregate, he said.

Then an endangered mussel was found to have habitat along the river.

“Those endangered mussels became a real issue to the point where they stopped dredging, and as dredging went down so did the barging, and so did a lot of the ancillary businesses,” Marlin said.

With the levels of service regulation in effect, lock operation is determined in large part due to recent levels of metric tons passed through the locks, meaning the system is always rear-facing, Marlin said, making it difficult for future growth.

“It has nothing to do with future development,” Marlin said. “In fact, it strangles it.”

Since the regulation says the Corps will consider all factors and not just lock tonnage in making decisions about lock operations, “That puts customers or stakeholders in a position of having to sell the Army Corps district on an annual basis for the need to keep that lock open,” Marlin said. He called it an extensive and costly annual effort.

The Waterways Association of Pittsburgh appealed the limited operational schedule of Allegheny River Lock 4 in December 2018, Marlin said, but it was denied, reducing the schedule from two shifts down to one shift daily. However, conversations surrounding that issue led to the Pittsburgh Engineer District applying for a charter in January 2020 to assemble a team to investigate low-use river issues and metrics and work with other districts and Corps headquarters to investigate budgeting and maintaining reliability on the rivers.

“In other words, the Army is saying, we agree, there’s a problem here,” Marlin said.

As Corps priorities shifted with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, industry officials are waiting on more information about the charter request. Meanwhile, they have started networking via a LinkedIn group titled “Inland Marine Transportation System Advocates (Guardians).”

“The primary purpose of this group is to open a conversation, to get everyone involved,” Marlin said. “It’s the only national platform we have at the moment. We ultimately want to provide users a meaningful voice of how the IMTS is managed.”

Ultimately, he said, that may mean recommending the reorganization of the IMTS governance structure, although he stressed that does not mean wresting control from the Corps.

“Our objective here is to have a seat at the table, to have a voice in the process,” Marlin said.

Industry officials could also help introduce technologies that already exist into the system, such as remote-operated locks and river information services, and to help eliminate inefficiencies, he said.

The other panelist providing information for the webinar was Mary Ann Bucci, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.

She focused on next steps for those interested in putting in place a system to replace the Levels of Service regulation.

One of those steps is helping the Pittsburgh Engineer District as much as possible to move forward with its charter.

“Once this charter is moved forward, the Corps will be able to engage with all of us,” Bucci said.

She expects another step will involve assembling a national project development team.

“We cannot be successful or get anything done unless there are people participating from all these low-use rivers,” she said. “This is not just about the Pittsburgh district. This is a national program that needs a national solution.”

Team members, with guidance from the Corps, will need to talk to legislators and the Office of Management and Budget about a clear and succinct plan to address the deficits in the current system and replace the regulation with a new framework, Bucci said, adding that any plan should stress that continued lock maintenance and operation is integral to the national transportation system.

“Fifteen low-use rivers is a lot,” she said. “They don’t do this to highways. They don’t do this to railroads.”

Bucci said a realistic goal would be for any operational changes to be prepared and included as part of the federal Fiscal Year 2023 Civil Works budget.

“I wish there was something I thought could be done more quickly,” Bucci said, but added that did not appear likely with all the other steps that need to be completed first.

In the meantime, she said, those interested should join the LinkedIn group and reach out to their local Corps districts to let them know they want to be part of the discussion.

To conclude the webinar, Aimee Andres, IRPT executive director, said she would be open to hearing how IRPT can help strengthen the message that changes to the levels of service regulation are essential to future growth along the Inland Marine Transportation System.