DOT Webinar Focuses on Inland Waterways Use, Maintenance And Needs

Close to 100 people logged into a webinar September 2 to learn more about the inland waterways system during the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Talking Freight session titled “Inland Waterways—Issues, Challenges and Opportunities.”

Speakers were Marty Hettel, vice president of government affairs for American Commercial Barge Line, and Tom Heinold, operations division chief for the Rock Island Engineer District.

The session was designed to give transportation officials and other interested partners basic information about the commercial marine industry’s operation on the inland waterways and its need for continued funding to update and maintain infrastructure.

The DOT noted in the webinar’s description that the inland waterway system of the United States is often overlooked when evaluating the U.S. freight transportation system due in part to the fact that it is managed and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rather than state departments of transportation or similar agencies.

“However, those waterways often play a key role in the transport of bulk items, such as agricultural products, coal and timber, allowing those products to be shipped more cheaply, benefitting the producers of those materials,” the DOT said in the webinar description. “To a much greater degree than other freight transportation modes, inland waterways are vulnerable to changing weather conditions, particularly flooding or drought conditions. Additionally, inland waterways are funded via the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which generally speaking does not provide all the funding needed to maintain the waterway system. These issues make maintaining and improving inland waterways challenging from a maintenance perspective. During times when the waterways cannot be used, their unavailability puts more pressure on the nearby railroad and highway infrastructure to handle the additional traffic, which illustrates the inland waterways’ importance for freight transportation and commerce.”

Barge Use

Hettel’s presentation was titled “Using Barges on the Inland Waterway System.”

“I always look forward to discussing the inland waterways as the safest, most fuel-efficient, most environmentally friendly and most cost-effective means of transporting bulk commodities in the continental United States,” he said as he introduced the topic.

He noted that one 15-barge tow can carry the same amount of freight as 216 railcars and six locomotives or 1,050 large semi trucks. In 2018, 578 million tons of freight were moved by barge on the inland waterways.

“Put that same tonnage on semi trucks and put them end to end, and it would circle the earth more than 13 times,” Hettel said, before adding that on railcars it would connect New York to Los Angeles more than 20 times.

Hettel also gave fuel efficiency and environmental statistics, saying that to move one ton of cargo, a barge can get 647 miles per gallon of fuel, while it is 477 miles per gallon by rail and 145 miles per gallon by truck. Rail also produces 30 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than barge does, and trucks have 10 times the emissions, he said, meaning freight moving by barge has the smallest carbon footprint.

American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) operates 3,504 barges and 180 towboats with horsepower varying from 2,000 hp. to 11,200 hp., Hettel said. It employs 2,150 people to move 61 million tons of freight annually, he said. The company has 2,424 covered hopper barges to move weather-sensitive products including grains, sugar, salt, cement, fertilizer and finished products like steel coils and beams and wire rods; 692 open hopper barges for non-weather-sensitive products such as coal, aggregates and scrap iron; and 388 liquid barges for products such as gasoline, crude oil and chemicals.

He also gave information about typical tow sizes and discussed fleeting areas and the process of locking, including double-locking, necessary with antiquated, 600-foot locks instead of the more modern 1,200-foot locks such as those on the Ohio River that can accommodate a 15-barge tow.

With double-locking, it takes an average of 2-1/2 hours for a typical tow to transit a 600-foot lock, Hettel said. With a 1,200-foot lock, it takes aabout 45 minutes, depending on the lift of the lock, but that saved time equates to saved operational expenses.

The Inland Waterway Revenue Act of 1978 called for infrastructure projects on America’s inland waterways to be funded 50 percent from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and 50 percent from the government’s general revenues. Companies using the waterways pay a fuel tax that is deposited into the trust fund. The original tax was 2 cents per gallon and rose to 20 cents per gallon through 2014. Companies then voluntarily increased their tax to 29 cents per gallon of propulsion fuel used in order to more robustly fund the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and complete projects sooner.

“It should also be noted that the inland waterways industry is the only entity that is taxed for utilizing the inland waterways system,” Hettel said, noting that hydroelectric facilities, industrial and municipal water users, recreational boaters and those using the waterway for irrigation pay no revenue into the Inland Waterway Trust Fund.

Hettel said this voluntary tax increase coupled with legislation that changed the remaining cost to build Olmsted Locks and Dam to 85 percent general revenue and 15 percent from the trust fund allowed Olmsted to come online four years quicker than had been originally estimated. The Corps of Engineers estimated the economic benefits of Olmsted alone at $640 million annually, he said

The dam replaced the obsolete Ohio River Locks and Dams 52 and 53, built in the 1920s. Those two locks had some of the longest delays on the inland waterways system, with tows sometimes waiting three to four days to transit Lock 52, Hettel said.

“The inland waterways let out a sigh of relief when the Olmsted Lock project became operational,” Hettel said.

The Inland Waterways Trust Fund tax increase also allowed four other major projects to receive efficient funding for construction: the Lower Monongahela, Kentucky and Chickamauga locks as well as a major rehabilitation project at the LaGrange Lock.

However, Hettel also noted that 17 inland waterways projects have been authorized—going back as far as the year 2000—but not funded by Congress.

“Needless to say, the cost to build them is more than it was at the time they were authorized for construction,” he said.

Among those projects waiting for construction as part of the Navigation and Ecosystems Sustainability Program (NESP) authorized in 2007 legislation are construction of 1,200-foot locks at the LaGrange and Peoria locks on the Illinois River as well as at Locks 20 through 25 on the Upper Mississippi River.

“Once these new chambers are built, our inland waterways system will be that much more fuel-efficient, that much more environmentally friendly and that much more cost-effective,” Hettel said.

Additionally, he said, the NESP program will also improve the ecosystems of the Upper Mississippi River.


Thomas Heinold, chief of the operations division for the Rock Island Engineer District, spoke on “Maintaining and Enhancing the Inland Waterways System.”

He noted the Rock Island District is one of six districts in the Mississippi Valley division. The Rock Island district operates 17 dams and 20 locks and 582 miles of navigation channel. In fiscal year 2017, 755 million tons of cargo locked through the district.

In looking at the infrastructure, Heinold said, “Most of it was built in the 1930s and 1940s with a 50-year design life, so you do the math. Most of this stuff is old and getting older and probably needs to be replaced.”

Heinold stressed the need to make major capital reinvestments in the system, saying, “Major rehabilitation and construction is needed to restore these aging facilities to full capability, prevent major disruptions and provide opportunities for growth.”

He quoted a 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture study titled “Importance of Inland Waterways to U.S. Agriculture” that said, “Failure to modernize these and other locks and dams increases costs of U.S. farm exports and helps foreign exporters close the cost gap with the United States.”

The same study noted that U.S. barge traffic delays on the Mississippi and other rivers are rising as a result of growing lock and dam malfunctions, increasing from 35 percent in 2010 to 49 percent in 2017. Delays on the Mississippi alone increased from 20 percent in 2010 to 53 percent in 2017.

“Delays can cost up to $729 per hour for an average tow, amounting to more than $44 million a year,” Heinold noted in one of his presentation’s slides.

Heinold also stressed the importance of NESP, saying the construction of the seven new 1,200-foot lock chambers along with small-scale navigation improvements and ecosystem and habitat restoration efforts would reduce lockage times by nearly half and eliminate the threat of a “single point of failure,” ensuring the vitality of the river system.

The good news, he said, is that NESP received $4.5 million in funding in fiscal year 2020. Although none of that is for construction, it can be used for design preparation. Unfortunately, he estimated that NESP needs more than 1,000 times that much funding to be successful in eliminating the construction backlog.

One bright spot in the work taking place has been on the Illinois Waterway, where the Corps worked with industry to consolidate necessary lock closures to prevent bottlenecking the system by closing one or two locks each year. Currently, he said, work is going on at five sites with four locks requiring dewatering. The majority of the work is taking place in July through October to try to avoid historical spring flooding and fall harvest seasons, he said.

“We don’t often dewater four adjacent locks in the same season, but in order to avoid those negative effects to industry, that’s what it’s taken to do it,” Heinold said.

He stressed the importance of reopening as soon as possible given expectations for bumper crops this season. Once reopened, the Corps will withhold scheduled closures on the waterway until at least 2023 to allow time for industry to recover from the first round of closures. When the second round of work is completed, Heinold said, the goal is for another 25 years of reliable service from the eight locks on the Illinois Waterway.

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