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Kentucky Transportation Plan Outlines Challenges, Opportunities For State’s Navigable Waterways

January 17, 2023   The Waterways Journal

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Kentucky officials released the final version of the state’s updated long-range, multi-modal transportation plan January 10.

The 132-page policy plan, which the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet said was shaped by both public input and technical forecasting, provides the state’s transportation-related goals through 2045. Updates to the plan are required by federal law approximately every seven years. This is Kentucky’s first update since 2014.


Portions of the plan dealing with the state’s waterways include an overview of the transportation mode along with accompanying challenges and opportunities. The plan notes that there are 1,090 miles of commercially navigable waterways in Kentucky. Ten locks and dams operate on the state’s rivers, with the Corps of Engineers having jurisdiction on all of them except for those on the Kentucky River, which are owned and maintained by the Kentucky River Authority.


A concern noted in multiple portions of the plan is the age of river infrastructure.  The state’s locks and dams were constructed primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, but some major dams, such as Kentucky Dam on the Tennessee River, are even older.


“The majority of the locks and dams on the rivers in Kentucky are over 50 years old,” the plan says. “Those constructed in the 1930s and 1940s need major rehabilitation or replacement.”


More than 90 million tons of freight are shipped and received annually on Kentucky’s waterways, according to the plan, but it also recognizes long-term decreases in coal shipments.


“The inland waterway system carries a significant amount of Kentucky’s coal to customers throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys,” according to the plan. “Kentucky is no longer a top 3 leading coal provider in the United States. In 2021, about 578 million short tons of coal were produced in 23 states.”


The top additional concern noted in the plan is that rail networks bypass large sections of the Ohio River basin, limiting inland connectivity. However, this could provide an opportunity for river transportation in the future.

“Potential exists for the creation of a container-on-barge terminal on a waterway in the western part of Kentucky,” according to the plan.


Plan authors see the state’s 10 public riverports, of which seven are active and three are developing, along with more than 160 private port terminals as a possibility for spurring economic growth.


“The ports largely do not compete with one another, and each can stimulate economic development in the surrounding region,” according to the plan.


To help further develop those resources, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has included $500,000 annually in general fund revenue since 2013 for riverport improvements through its Kentucky Riverport Improvement (KRI) grant program.


Increasing funding to riverports is difficult because of the way state law is written, according to the plan. “Kentucky is constitutionally prohibited from using road fund dollars for non-highway modes of transportation; therefore, there is no line item for riverports in the highway plan. If riverport authorities and operators want to advocate for a dedicated revenue stream, a place to start is to identify advocates who can enact necessary legislation that the KYTC could help administer.”


In its summary of transportation needs, the plan’s authors say the amount of state funding available through the grant program is “significantly less than the estimated $222 million preservation, modernization and expansion needs identified in a Riverport Study for the Board.” If riverports do receive funding, however, plan authors believe Kentucky’s geographic location positions it well for growth. The state is “in the heart of the nation at the hub of the nation’s inland waterways.” As a result, the state offers efficient year-round freight transport of bulk materials, agricultural products, chemicals, minerals, metals, wood, manufactured goods and containerized freight, the plan concludes.


“Kentucky’s well-developed terminals and riverports (supported by enterprise zones, warehouse facilities, ports of entry, and foreign trade zones) link with an intermodal transportation system that forms a network with the world,” according to the plan. “Containing over 1,590 miles of United States Army Corps of Engineers navigable inland waterways, Kentucky is the linchpin between the Great Lakes, Canada and Mexico, as well as the deep-draft ports of New Orleans, La., and Mobile, Ala., for shipments overseas. The Ohio River accounts for over 30 percent of these miles on Kentucky’s navigable waterways.”


http://gettheretogetherky.govKentucky Transportation Secretary Jim Gray said the long-range plan is important for the state in building toward a successful future.


“Long-range planning is a critical part of ensuring our infrastructure and policies meet the needs of the public well into the future,” he said. “We appreciate those who took the time to provide feedback on transportation priorities for Kentucky that were incorporated into this important policy document.”


The 2022-2045 Long-Range State Transportation Plan is available online at