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Investing in the inland waterways is a wise choice

October 22, 2019   Workboat (blog)

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The LaGrange Lock and Dam at Versailles, Ill., is arguably in the poorest shape of any lock in the inland waterways system. Pamela Glass photo.


U.S. inland waterways stakeholders have notched some big victories over the last couple of years. The merciful completion of the $3 billion Olmsted Locks and Dam project is probably the biggest. And Congress has approved some record funding packages to help modernize the river system.


Great news, but according to a study released in August by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s just not enough. The study, “Importance of Inland Waterways to U.S. Agriculture,” discusses the critical connection between the inland waterways and the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture in global markets.


Compared to the status quo, the study said that increasing investment in the inland waterways by $6.3 billion over a 10-year period (through 2029) and $400 million per year thereafter through 2045 would increase the waterways’ contribution to U.S. gross domestic product by 20% and increase waterways-related employment by 19% to 472,000 jobs.


Those numbers would more than offset the cost of completing all the proposed projects and would increase the market value of U.S. corn and soybeans by $39 billion, according to the study. Conversely, reduced investment would decrease the market value of those commodities by $58 billion.


Not surprisingly, the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) and the Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) commended the USDA for releasing the study that emphasizes the benefits from investing in improvements to the inland waterways infrastructure on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River system.


Additional highlights of the study:

• U.S. farmers enjoy a competitive advantage in global export markets in large part because of the nation’s robust, resilient transportation and infrastructure network that moves corn and soybeans, the nation’s highest yielding crops.


• Because of its efficiencies and lower costs, the inland waterways system saves between $7 billion to $9 billion annually over the cost of shipping by other modes. These values are based on all goods currently being moved on the water compared to the same volume transported by rail.


• Each dollar of waterways activity results in $1.89 in additional U.S. economic activity related to the waterways.


• The inland waterways’ infrastructure is aging and needs major rehabilitation and construction to restore its full capability, forestall major disruptions and provide opportunities for growth. Most locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River System have far exceeded their projected 50-year lifespan. Delays can cost operators and shippers more than $44 million annually.