Want Cargo-Moving Efficiency? Invest in U.S. Waterways

Water transportation’s edge

But with crucial needs to relieve rail- and truck-shipping bottlenecks at major seaports, modernize air traffic control communication systems and replace thousands of flagging bridges, why a priority for waterways? Plain and simple – efficiency.

Although much of the country has arisen far from seaports and other waterway shipping, water offers the best bargain when moving cargo. The capacity of a typical dry-cargo barge, for example, is 16 times that of a rail hopper car, and 70 times that of a grain-hauling semi-truck. Plus, those ratios more than double when comparing liquid-hauling barges with tanker rail cars and trucks.

Let’s look, too, at fuel efficiency.

The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that one gallon of diesel fuel will haul oneton of cargo, on average, 150 miles in a semi-truck, 478 miles on a train and 616 miles in a barge on a river. What’s more, switching freight to waterways relieves highway and rail-hub congestion.

Before railroads were built, roads were used mostly for local travel and hauling, and long-distance shipping was nearly all on water. Then came growth, and America flocked to railroads for its huge westward expansion of the 19th century. In the 20th century came the massive highway building and the resulting trucking industry.

So, despite the significant efficiencies of shipping on water, history has left waterways far behind when considering the nation’s total public investment by federal,state and local governments in freight-moving infrastructure.

Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysts tallied that spending annually, and an average of its most recent totals (2001–2004) showed roads and bridges with 61 percent of the spending; mass transit, 20 percent; aviation, 14.5 percent; water transportation, less than 4 percent. In perspective, about 14 percent of intercity cargo traffic moves on waterways. (CBO’s count omitted most of the modest public spending for freight rail infrastructure.)

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) calls the inland waterways and rivers “the hidden backbone of our freight network.” The importance of waterway transport doesn’t stop with farm goods and petroleum.Other major products depend on the waterways as well, including coal, steel, fertilizers and chemicals, sand and crushed rock, and intermodal containers.