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In Washington, D.C., the storyline is that “infrastructure” has become a 14-letter word that means all things to all people. This relates specifically to the administration’s and Congress’ attempts to develop and move a meaningful infrastructure package that can muster bipartisan support.

But the truth is that the American infrastructure has been too long kicked down the road. Foundational infrastructure — such as bridges, roads, water lines, broadband, railways and airports — is in critical need of recapitalization and can no longer wait for improvements to be made. Often, though, in the discussion about Roads, Rail and Runways, the fourth “R” — Rivers — gets lost along the way.

Often out of sight, out of mind, the inland waterways are a vital part of the transportation supply chain in the United States. The inland waterways return nearly $10 to our nation’s economy in transportation cost savings for every one dollar invested. Shippers, and ultimately consumers, save $20.37 per ton for internal traffic of cargo compared to other surface transportation modes, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Rivers are economic generators and jobs creators. And beyond commercial shipping, the waterways benefit many other important facets of everyday living, from recreational boating, industrial and municipal water supply, hydropower generation, flood control, national security and waterfront property and economic development.

Inland waterways also facilitate competition for U.S. shippers, particularly for the agriculture sector in burgeoning foreign markets. In 2014, for example, 73 percent of the volume of U.S. agricultural exports and 65 percent of imports were transported via our waterways. Having access to competitive barge transportation helps to discipline rates for other modes of transportation, an important factor given depressed agricultural commodity values of late.

The United States exports nearly one-quarter of the grain it produces. When it comes time to moving these crucial commodities to export grain elevators, barges account for transporting 61 percent of corn, 42 percent of soybeans, 40 percent of wheat and 26 percent of sorghum. These exports and other navigation activity support more than a half-million U.S. jobs.

Many of the navigation locks were constructed in the 1930s under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but now require infrastructure investment. More than 67 percent of the locks on the inland system have exceeded their economic design life of 50 years and in the year 2020—just two years away—that number will reach 78 percent. Can-kicking must stop here and modernization must begin.

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The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 14 billion tons of additional freight will be transported within the U.S. by the year 2040, with 10 percent of it moving by water (an additional 1.4 million tons). Our already-stressed roads and rails are predicted to account for 77 percent of the increased freight.

One bright spot in the coal industry is the growth in exports of metallurgical coal. In fact, through the end of April 2018, lower Mississippi coal exports for the current calendar year totaled 5.5 million metric tons, up 42 percent from comparable year-ago volume, according to River Transport News. And the low-cost of barge movements to ports is the difference in winning these foreign contracts.

We are an intermodal society, so rail and truck must co-exist and cooperate with barging on the waterways, but the sheer capacity of barges is enormous: one standard 15-barge tow equals 1,050 trucks on our roads and 216 rail cars and six locomotives on our railways.

Moving the more than 60 percent of grain for exports and 20 percent of coal and petroleum energy products also saves wear and tear on the highway and bridge infrastructure, as well as relieves traffic congestion that is also growing across the country.

So as our nation’s policy-makers consider infrastructure improvements ahead, let’s remember that rivers are critical to freight transportation to meet today’s and tomorrow’s demands.

Waterways move America — and our goods — forward.

To learn more, visit

Mike Toohey is president and CEO of the Waterways Council Inc.

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