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Inland waterways faces a litany of challenges, WorkBoat Show panelists say

December 1, 2023   The Waterways Journal

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Low water is but one problem facing companies operating on the U.S. inland waterways system.


The session “Inland Waterways Infrastructure Update” at the International WorkBoat Show on Wednesday, featured Bruce Lambert, gateway director for the Maritime Administration’s (Marad) Central Gulf and Southern Rivers; Daniel Ladd, director, Office of Financial Appeals, Marad; Tracy Zea, president and CEO Waterways Council Inc. (WCI); and Mark Wright, a vice president with the American Waterways Operators.


Panel members discussed a range of topics including water levels, navigation, locks and dams, supply chain, funding, and workforce development.


In November 2021, Congress passed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. As part of the legislation, $17 billion has been earmarked for inland waterways aging infrastructure, coastal ports, and land ports of entry. While the money is available, many projects have yet to start for several reasons. One major problem is a lack of workers. There just aren’t enough people to do the job.


“There are workforce issues,” said Zea. “But instead of starting new projects, I’d rather see us finishing current projects.”


“It’s a challenge,” said Wright. “We’ve been going out to college job fairs in addition to the five state licensing academies (Maine Maritime Academy, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Cal Maritime, SUNY Maritime, and Texas A&M University at Galveston).


Lambert said he would like to see more emphasis on physical assets on the inland waterways. 


“We don’ talk about hard, physical assets,” he said. “There are rewards in maintaining those.”


Wright agreed. “We have not invested in our physical Aids to Navigation.”