By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
SIDNEY, Ohio — Waterway transportation moves more than 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports, according to Richard Calhoun. Barges can move 616 tons of cargo per gallon of gasoline compared to 478 tons on rail and 150 ton by truck. Yet, the United States’ waterway system is aging, causing costly delays.
The problem is lack of funding. Calhoun, president of Cargo Carriers, a business of Cargill, Inc., has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works about the importance of maintaining the nation’s inland waterways. Rob Joslin, farmer and past president of the American Soybean Assoc., experienced a slowdown caused by the affects of a lack of dredging in the river system. When he inventoried his liquid fertilizer order from August, he realized he had only received 60 percent of that order.
“I’m still waiting for 40 percent of my deliveries,” Joslin said. “Because of the shallowness of the river, a barge went aground and it shut down the river traffic until these rains started and that backlog started to flow. This is not critical time-wise, but what if that happened in the spring? This would impact a lot of our exports.”
In his testimony Calhoun said 56 percent of the 238 locks in the U.S. river system are more than 50 years old, well beyond their design life. Thirty-four of the locks are more than 80 years old.
“In 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that locks were unavailable for more than 157,000 hours for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance or mechanical breakdowns,” he said. “This represents 6,560 days of downtime across the system.”
In 2010, a Corps and industry task force worked on the Capital Development Plan, a comprehensive package of recommendations to continue the viability of the inland waterways system, Calhoun said. They recommended increasing annual spending on lock and dam projects from $170 million to $380 million annually.
That plan was converted into legislation – the Waterways are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency and Environment (WAVE-4) Act of 2012 – which now has 27 bipartisan supporters in the U.S. House. It has been endorsed by Cargill and more than 20 organizations.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) also released a report making similar recommendations and painting a grim picture of transportation failures if this country fails to act quickly, Calhoun said.
“The report notes that costs attributable to the aforementioned delays in the nation’s inland waterways system were $33 billion in 2010, and it is expected to increase to nearly $49 billion by 2012,” he said.
“Cargill and our waterways partners are willing to accept a significant increase in the diesel user fee if we are promised an efficient plan that will result in a reliable river. However, we cannot and should not act alone in this effort.”
Also, investment in modern waterways infrastructure is occurring elsewhere around the world, Calhoun said, from the construction of a waterways system in China to the widening of the Panama Canal. This should give the United States incentive to increase investment here at home.
Said Joslin: “Eighty-nine percent of ag exports are exported out of the country by water. I would like to see a viable plan with assured funding move forward.”