Many of the 250 locks in U.S. inland waterway system were built in the 1920s and 1930s and are a critical part of transporting cargo that fuels our nation’s economy. A recent report commissioned by the Transportation Research Board (TRB), Funding and Managing the U.S. Inland Waterways System What Policy Makers Need to Know, provided answers on how to maintain the aging inland waterway system.
Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) Director of the Center for Ports & Waterways Jim Kruse served as a member of a blue-ribbon panel that was assembled to address the issue of funding for the inland waterway system.
“The issue is that the funding and maintenance for the inland waterway system was inadequate and we were getting ready to face some serious problems in the waterway system,” said Kruse. “The TRB Executive Committee commissioned a policy study to look at what kind of shape the system was in, what kind of funding is needed, and if so, how to fund it. The big issues are the locks and dams because that’s what keeps the system operating. The problem is that there has never been a comprehensive way to look at which locks should take priority and what needs to be done to keep the system as a whole operable.”
The locks and dams in the system are maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Historically, maintenance has been performed on a case-by-case crisis basis, or fixed as fails. According to Kruse, the Corps of Engineers has made a move in recent years toward maintaining the system as a whole rather than focusing on a lock when it fails.
“We’re going in the right direction but are not there yet,” said Kruse. “We need to do a better job of looking at this as a system rather than 250 parts of a system.”
The TRB Special Report 315 was published this year and the major conclusions were:
- Reliability and performance of the inland waterways freight system are the priorities for funding.
- Reliability and performance will depend more on investments in operations and maintenance than on capital expenditures for larger locks, although larger locks may be warranted under certain circumstances.
- More reliance on a user-pays approach to funding the inland waterways for commercial navigation is feasible, would provide additional revenues for maintenance, and would promote economic efficiency for the system.
“The bottom line was that as a group we felt that the funding was not adequate and needed to be increased, but it needs to be increased intelligently with a focus on maintenance and reliability first and improvements later,” said Kruse. “Because the system is getting old and failures are going to start happening if nothing’s done.”
For more information, view the report online at http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/sr/sr315.pdf.