June 16, 2015

Strategic Investments in U.S. Inland Waterways Should Focus on Maintaining Locks and Facilities; User-Pays Funding Strategy Would Promote Economic Efficiency


WASHINGTON – While the U.S. inland waterways system covers a vast geographic area, its freight traffic is highly concentrated, and the system needs a sustainable and well-executed plan for maintaining system reliability and performance to ensure that its limited resources are directed where they are most essential, says a new report from the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board.  More targeted operations and maintenance (O&M) investments informed by an asset management approach would prioritize locks and facilities that are most in need of maintenance and for which the economic impacts of disruption would be highest.


The federal inland waterways infrastructure is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and funded through USACE’s navigation budget.  The system moves nearly 7 percent of all ton-miles of domestic cargo, primarily coal, petroleum, food and farm products, chemicals, and crude materials.  It consists of more than 36,000 miles of commercially navigable channels and about 240 working lock sites. The chief and most expensive component is the installation and maintenance of lock and dam infrastructure to enable the upstream and downstream movement of cargo.


While many locks are more than 50 years old, lock performance correlates poorly with age since many locks have been rehabilitated.  Navigation could be improved by directing O&M resources toward major facilities with high volumes of traffic, and where the time lost to shipping delays is significantly higher than the river average, the report says. 


About 50 percent of barge cargo moves on six major corridors -- such as the Mississippi River, Illinois River, and the Ohio River -- which represent 16 percent of the total waterway miles, while many inland waterway segments have minimal or no freight traffic.  The distribution of funding toward more essential facilities is already occurring in USACE’s budgeting process, but a standard asset management approach to O&M spending is not fully developed or deployed across all USACE districts.


Commercial navigation users pay a share of the system’s construction costs through a fuel tax, but pay none of the roughly $650 million annual cost of O&M, which is funded through general tax revenues.  A system more reliant on user payments would provide needed revenue for maintenance and promote economic efficiency while being more consistent with the federal posture toward other freight transportation modes that are more dependent on user fees, the report says. 


“Debates about funding for the inland waterways system and the roles of the federal government and users in paying for the system deserve renewed attention in light of shrinking federal budgets, declining appropriations, and increasing maintenance needs for its infrastructure,” said committee chair Chris Hendrickson, Hamerschlag University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  “Without a funding strategy that emphasizes system preservation, maintenance projects may continue to be deferred, which would result in further deterioration and in a less cost-effective and less reliable system.”


The study was sponsored by the Transportation Research Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863.  The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.




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Pre-publication copies of Funding and Managing the U.S. Inland Waterways System: What Policy Makers Need to Know are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at www.nap.edu  or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


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Transportation Research Board


Committee on Reinvesting in Inland Waterways: What Policymakers Need to Know


Chris T. Hendrickson* (chair)

Hamerschlag University Professor
Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and of Engineering and Public Policy
Carnegie Mellon University



Leigh B. Boske

Professor of Economics and Public Policy

LBJ School of Public Affairs

University of Texas



Michael S. Bronzini

Independent Consultant

George Mason University

Fairfax, Va.


James J. Corbett Jr.


School of Marine Science and Policy

College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment

University of Delaware



G. Edward Dickey

Independent Consultant



C. James Kruse


Center for Ports and Waterways

Texas Transportation Institute

Texas A&M University 



B. Starr McMullen

Professor of Economics

Oregon State University



Leonard A. Shabman

Resident Scholar

Resources for the Future

Washington, D.C.


Thomas H. Wakeman III

Deputy Director

Center for Maritime Systems

Stevens Institute of Technology

Hoboken, N.J.




Melissa Welch-Ross

Study Director


*Member, National Academy of Engineering