Just about every American knows the sheer animal frustration of sitting in traffic. Numerous studies have also pointed to the serious economic toll that traffic jams exact. Less understood, however, are the major problems that congestion on the nation’s inland waterways present.
The inland waterway system – some 12,000 miles of waterways, connected by 240 locks, and used for commercial transportation by barge – are a bit like the veins and arteries of the United States. Unseen and unthought-of by most Americans, they provide vital transportation routes for chemicals, coal, petroleum, and other products. Some 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports, for example, are shipped by barge.
But the waterways are also suffering from a serious cholesterol build-up. This summer, I visited the Kentucky Lock and Dam, on the Tennessee River. The lock terminal is 600 feet long; a perfectly appropriate size for the barges that plied the waterways back in 1945, when the lock was constructed.
A barge enters the Kentucky lock. Photo by the author.But now many barges are literally twice the size. And so, in a remarkable feat that I got to witness, the cargo are literally split in half, and sent through the lock on two separate tows. This process can take as long as seven hours. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering, and the still-functioning septuagenarian lock lowers the barges by some eighty feet magnificently.
But it takes too long.
The result? Major gridlock. Standing on the shoreline of the Tennessee, I saw boats waiting to lock through as far as the eye could see. Indeed, barges waiting to lock through can end up sitting more than a day. This would be a sorry enough situation for the cascading delays it would cause through the entire system, but the slow-down at Kentucky Lock is anything but unique. For example, not far away on the Ohio River, delays currently average 80 hours, and more than 800 boats lined up waiting to pass through a lock on Friday, as it underwent maintenance.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the commercial waterways, has been agitating for increased government funding to modernize the lock system. At Kentucky Lock, for example, the Corps are currently constructing a 1,200 foot lock chamber that will ameliorate the need to split the barges in two. But the money comes only in dribs and drabs: The new lock, which began construction in 1998, was initially supposed to be open in 2007. But the funding has dried up from time to time, and it may be another decade before it opens.
The Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is capitalized by user fees (read: fuel taxes) and is supposed to pay for half of the cost of the rehab projects and new construction, has lately been in deep financial trouble, meaning taxpayers had to pick up more of the tab for rehab projects. (The financial picture has stablized recently, as the fuel levy has been raised.) As such, advocates are watching closely as the appropriations process ramps up on Capitol Hill. The Kentucky Lock construction, after all, is one of many such projects currently underway and in need of funding. (The Corps determine which projects to focus resources on, by order of importance.)
The problem that advocates of the waterways system face is this: Badly mismanaged and grossly overpriced infrastructure spending in recent decades has sapped support for any spending on infrastructure, whatsoever. As a result of that incompetence, vital systems that really do need help, like the waterways (which facilitated the transport of more than $200 billion worth of goods in 2013, by the way) languish.
Ethan Epstein visited the Kentucky Lock and Dam on a trip sponsored by Waterways Council, Inc.
This article has been corrected.