1n 1808, Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of the treasury, Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, laid out an ambitious plan to the U.S. Senate for U.S. transportation improvements that astonished contemporaries—what we would today call a comprehensive infrastructure package. It called for a total of $20 million (a huge sum at the time) to be laid out over a period of 10 years to build national roads, along with a series of canals connecting New York City with South Carolina. The plan didn’t pass, and even President Jefferson expressed doubts about it. But many of its recommendations eventually came to pass. Congress finally authorized the creation of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in 1919, and the entire waterway was completed in 1940. It extends 1,100 miles from Norfolk, Va., to Key West, Fla.
The development of the Columbia-Snake River system similarly benefited from the long-term vision of those who recognized its potential. President Theodore Roosevelt was an early promoter of damming both rivers for the needs of both hydropower and navigation (thought by some to be in conflict). A remarkable period of dam-building and improvements began in the 1930s and extended into the mid-1970s, bringing many benefits to the region that continue today.
Our readers know the Mississippi River and its tributaries well. Their combination of central, strategic location and direction of flow, combined with their interconnection and draining of much of the world’s most fertile farmland, make them a water transportation network unrivaled in the rest of the world. The transportation, and therefore price, advantage they offer is a big reason why premium American commodity farm products can successfully compete on the world market. The Mississippi River system has even been credited by at least one writer with making America a superpower.
But both of these other two systems also contribute to America’s prosperity in ways exceeding the visions of their early promoters, and both face many of the same issues and challenges as the Mississippi River system.
Both also require constant care and maintenance. Both are well-served by groups representing stakeholders—the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (founded in 1934) and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association (founded in 1999), respectively.
Since the 110-mile reach of the lower Columbia River was deepened to 43 feet in 2010, tenants at the ports of Longview, Kalama, Vancouver and Portland have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in terminal expansions and improvements. The PNWA has played a vital role in marshaling facts and focusing discussion on science-based ways to address the salmon crisis without threatening the many benefits the dam system has brought to Pacific Northwest waterways.
Working with Congress and the Corps of Engineers, AIWA has helped reduce the dredging backlog in the AIWW by more than $50 million.
Albert Gallatin was able to envision our transportation modes as one system, with all parts working together and supporting each other. That system has grown and ramified past his imagining. As our legislators continue to work toward a comprehensive infrastructure package, Gallatin’s breadth of vision remains a good guide for the future.