WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Did You Thank An Inland Mariner This Fourth?

A few months ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was predicting that an infrastructure package would be passed by July 4. That prediction proved to be a bit too optimistic, as negotiations are still ongoing between the two parties. Slow progress is being made nevertheless. A compromise bill for “hard” infrastructure projects (including port and some inland waterways projects) was decoupled from the soft “human infrastructure” proposals, which the administration is pursuing in a separate bill through the budget reconciliation process, which theoretically doesn’t need the cooperation of Republicans. 

While the infrastructure drama plays out in Washington, a number of recent developments are highlighting the importance of inland waterways. A recent study showed that cities in middle and eastern Tennessee with access to barged petroleum products suffered less during the May hacker-induced shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline (WJ, June 25). To put it another way, the inland waterways are a crucial factor in the resilience of our energy-supply system.

River cruising returned with a bang this summer. The summer’s river cruises have been booked solid almost since becoming available, showcasing the pent-up demand and spurring additional construction of river cruising vessels. 

The continuing logistics snarls in container ports and the shortage of truck drivers also highlight the urgency of lock and dam investment. A recent infographic by Statista showed that of all infrastructure components, locks and dams are the oldest. Yet they still receive comparatively little attention in discussions about general infrastructure. 

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The recovering economy is straining the logistics system as it ramps up. Rail networks are under stress.  An acute shortage of truck drivers is driving up the cost of trucking. Container ports are backed up, both in the U.S. and Europe, as ports struggle to keep up with ultra-large container vessels. The backups and delays are threatening the export of certain agricultural products and contributing to retail price inflation.

The inland waterways system can’t, by itself, compensate for all of these issues. But many of them would be much worse if we didn’t have reliable inland waterway freight transportation. As the Maritime Administration has often noted, the inland waterways are the only transportation mode whose freight potential is underutilized. The demand and the need are there, and will continue to drive investment and productivity, provided locks and dams and other waterways infrastructure are properly funded and maintained. 

While vaccination is still ongoing, the contrast between this year’s and last year’s July Fourth celebrations is very welcome, thanks to the swift development and rollout of vaccines.  A country capable of accomplishing that feat ought to be able to properly invest in and maintain its inland waterways infrastructure.