ASCE Panel Examines How Waterway Investments Make Environmental, Economic Sense

As part of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) March 3 release of its Report Card For America’s Infrastructure, the organization hosted a panel discussion focused on how the development, operation and maintenance of the nation’s ports and waterways has far-reaching benefits, both economically and environmentally.

The session, titled “Inland Waterways & Ports Poised To Help Us Green Our Future,” featured Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican representing Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District; Bill Hanson, senior vice president of Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corporation; Bob Gallagher, mayor of Bettendorf, Iowa, and co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative; and Jennifer Belknap Williamson, director of engineering for the Port of Portland.

Casey Dinges, executive adviser for ASCE, moderated the discussion.

In jumpstarting the conversation, Dinges pointed out that the nation’s ports and waterways are frequently on the “front lines” of natural disasters and climate change, including high water and hurricanes. And yet, waterways are the key to much-needed efficiencies within the U.S. transportation system.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“A single barge can carry the same as 70 tractor trailers,” Dinges said. “Investing in inland waterways, including locks and dams, can take strain off our other transportation modes.”

With that in mind, panelists emphasized the need for infrastructure investment to have a resiliency component.

Gallagher pointed to the Resilience Revolving Loan Fund, contained in the STORM Act, which was signed into law January 1. That act allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide grants to states and municipalities in the form of revolving loans to tackle risk reduction projects.

“This is a really flexible tool that will provide low interest loans to states and communities to take measures to protect our communities from the potential damages we’ve all experienced, things like flooding and wildfires, earthquakes and hurricanes, or other natural disasters,” Gallagher said. “This takes a common-sense approach. It’s going to protect our communities and save the federal government money in the long run.”

Gallagher said, now that the program has been authorized, he looks forward to Congress appropriating the funds.

Harbor Maintenance Tax

Hanson also highlighted recent congressional action as it relates to the Harbor Maintenance Tax.

“When we started the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund initiative 10 years ago called RAMP, the Corps of Engineers told us that, if they got full access to the annual receipts from the HMTF for five years, thanks to the efficiencies they would be able to maintain every authorized port and waterway to its authorized dimensions in the U.S., large, medium and small,” Hanson said. “Next year, for the first time ever, thanks to Sen. Richard Shelby, the Corps will have full access to all annual receipts. Then, thanks to Chair DeFazio, Congress has access to the entire HMTF balance of $9 billion.”

Dinges asked Graves to speak about Louisiana’s approach to coastal restoration and resiliency, particularly as it came about after Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall August 29, 2005. After Katrina, Louisiana went back to the drawing board in terms of how it planned and executed restoration and resiliency projects. Rather than many localized boards, the state developed a master plan and placed development and execution of that plan under the leadership of the Coastal Protection & Restoration Authority. Graves said a huge component of that has been identifying how different projects and interests intersect and benefit one another, and he recommended that states and municipalities around the nation take a similar approach.

“You’ve got to recognize that, whether you’re building a road, managing a wastewater program, or managing a coastal wildlife habitat program, all are opportunities to figure out how to identify symbiotic relationships between or among programs,” Graves said. “If it’s a road, maybe you integrate it into a levee system, maybe you integrate it into some type of gate structure allowing for hydrologic exchange. All sorts of opportunities where you’re able to co-mingle funds and really significantly advance your objectives by pulling all these funding streams together.”

Williamson offered the example of one way the Port of Portland was able to creatively achieve both environmental benefits and improved efficiency with regard to the dredge Oregon, which maintains the Columbia River system for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Our dredge is very old and had a very old diesel engine with a lot of emissions that came from it,” she said. “That was one of our early energy and sustainability projects to look at.”

The port worked with the Corps to identify a funding strategy for financing the repower project. The results were impressive.

“It’s had incredible results in an 85 percent reduction in diesel emissions from that single vessel, and I think that’s a story of the kind of investment that can happen all over the country through the combination of federal investment and private investment to improve the resiliency and sustainability of our operations and the vessels that operate on our system,” she said.

A major point of emphasis throughout the discussion was the importance of consistent, reliable funding. 

“Most of the projects developed for those master plans involve large-scale dredging projects, which are very much in our wheelhouse,” Hanson said. “Most of these master plans involve engineering and natural infrastructure concepts, which are not particularly new to engineers but are being implemented on a more programmatic basis and will only work if consistent and reliable funding is provided to build and maintain them.”

Through improved congressional appropriations over the past few years and more dependable funding from revenue streams like the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, dredging companies are making significant investments in new dredges, to the tune of about $2 billion, Hanson said. Those dredges represent income for U.S. shipyards, greater efficiency on the job and improved environmental impacts. What’s more, through programs like the beneficial use of dredged material, dredge teams are further multiplying those benefits. Hanson gave the example of dredging near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

“Working with local stakeholders in the Mississippi River and led by the Big River Coalition, the Corps of Engineers was able to change the way they contracted for dredging and managing the Mississippi River’s sediment, resulting in the creation of over 10,000 acres of restored land in southern Louisiana over the last 10 years, an ongoing annual effort,” Hanson said. “We believe there are many other similar opportunities for that around the country, and we look forward to ASCE’s continued support and leadership on this issue.”

Gallagher, in closing, said it all comes back to dependable funding, maintenance and development that lead to productive waterways.

“We need to protect and improve the system,” he said. “If we protect and improve the system, it becomes more predictable, and it becomes more efficient. If we spend one dollar in resiliency planning in projects, we will save six dollars in the cleanup efforts later.

“We now need to work together to protect and improve the system so we can continue to be the commodity provider for the rest of the world,” Gallagher added, “otherwise we’re going to be left behind.”