US spending shortfalls on inland waterways undermine US exports

By: | at 07:00 PM | Channel(s): Ports & Terminals  

By Stas Margaronis, AJOT
New shipping restrictions on the lower Mississippi River reflect a long-term failure to properly maintain the nation’s waterways causing a crisis for farmers, shippers and exporters. As growing delays and higher costs and undermine commerce, according to U.S. waterway representatives.
Ken Wells, coordinator for the Big River Coalition, which represents shippers, vessel operators and farm organizations, told the AJOT that recent vessel restrictions imposed along the Mississippi reflect a long-term failure to adequately invest in keeping the river free from silting. Without a dramatic increase in federal spending, commerce along the nation’s waterways will face growing disruptions: “Cuts for the sake of cuts by Congress do not make sense when the commerce on our waterways is in desperate need of new investment.”
On Jan. 25th, restrictions went into effect on ships entering and leaving the Mississippi River. The Associated Branch Pilots, Louisiana-licensed pilots who help guide ships entering and leaving the mouth of the river, began limiting the draft of ships to no more than 44 feet, down from the 45-foot river channel depth authorized by Congress.
Robert M. Landry, marketing director for the Port of New Orleans says that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is now dredging the ship channel, but said he did not know how long it would take to restore the channel to its 45 foot depth.
Wells says that new dredging by USACE will not solve the long-term problem on the river because increased shoaling particularly north of New Orleans occurs where there are bends in the river. This is narrowing the ship channel and could eventually lead to “one way traffic, which would be disastrous for commerce and navigation.”
Cornel Martin, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc, (WCI) told the AJOT that a cascading backlog of repairs to locks and dams that should have been replaced thirty years ago have been delayed or placed on hold reducing the flow of inland waterway traffic on Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi river routes. U.S. exports of grain, coal and other products are slowed or diverted onto less fuel-efficient rail and truck transportation causing increased congestion.
Mitchell Smith, operations manager for the Port of South Louisiana, based in LaPlace, Louisiana says the long-term problem is that “Washington does not have a grasp that without adequate funding for dredging we are restricting the amount of vessel traffic on the Mississippi that impacts grain, coal and other bulk shippers in 31 states and this slows exports and causes losses in sales.”
Mitchell said that the current 44 foot restriction on the lower Mississippi causes a loss of twelve inches of depth in the river due to inadequate dredging. This represents a potential increase in cost to shippers of about $600,000 per ship as additional vessels, port costs and delays are factored.
Martin says about 60% of all grain shipments coming from states such as Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, North and South Dakota are shipped by barge down to ports such as New Orleans, South Louisiana and other Mississippi ports for export. American farmers have been increasing exports to meet shortfalls in other countries caused by heat, drought and floods but now face delays and potential losses due to the U.S. spending shortfalls in the nation’s inland waterway system Mitchell says the port of South Louisiana accounts for 54% of all U.S. grain shipments and handles 290 million tons of import and export cargo as well as up to 26 deep draft ships at a time and numerous tugs and barges. The port also handles 20% of U.S. refinery processing and is a major export center for coal.
Mitchell agrees with Martin that the problem has been festering for years. In the case of dredging, Martin says the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund actually has a $6 billion surplus, but the funds are not being fully utilized in order to maintain an offset to the U.S. budget deficit. The results are problems at ports, suc

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American Journal of Transportation