The National Waterways Foundation report released this month on U.S. waterways’ economic competitiveness is very timely, coming as it does after news about ramped-up investment in U.S. waterways infrastructure. Americans have short attention spans, especially in this age of social media, and it’s easy for public attention to move on once Congress devotes resources to a problem.
The report identifies “two main threats to these strategic trade and military advantages. First, underinvestment in the system’s infrastructure, maintenance, and operations has degraded the service levels on the rivers, making it less reliable and less competitive.”
Twelve years is not a long time in lock and dam years. As recently as 2010, the Corps of Engineers publicly said it was in a “fix as fail” mode when it came to lock and dam repairs on the Ohio River because of lack of funding for needed maintenance and repairs. That was a shocking and embarrassing statement to have to hear in the world’s richest nation.
Recent investment commitments by Congress have made a start in correcting that neglect, thanks to the vision of many in our inland waterways industry, who have worked closely with the Corps and waterways advocates in Congress. Tracy Zea, CEO and president of Waterways Council Inc., detailed recent funding wins at last week’s Inland Marine Expo.
It’s all welcome news, to be sure. But we need to remember that it is just the beginning. The degradation of our inland waterways system took decades to develop, and it won’t be corrected in a few funding cycles. “Investments from the federal government over the past decade have made substantial progress in increasing reliability and clearing the maintenance backlog; but continued prioritization of projects that support efficient operations will be necessary to increase shipper confidence,” the NWF report states.
“The second threat is external,” it continues. While we have taken decades to get our investment act together (or not), our competitors have not been standing still. “While the United States has been upgrading domestic inland waterway infrastructure, other countries have been doing the same for their own military and commercial advantage.”
The Chinese have been heavily investing in waterways infrastructure, both within their borders (on the corridor of the Yangtze River, the world’s most heavily trafficked waterway) and overseas in South American countries critical to Chinese food security, where American ag companies are also investing in waterway infrastructure.
Too many vital U.S. interests are at stake for us to ever let down our guard or be complacent about what is necessary to ensure that our farmers and manufacturers are able to confidently rely on a robust and resilient waterways system.