home Waterfront Planning and Development What lies ahead for the nation’s crumbling inland waterways and marine ports?

What lies ahead for the nation’s crumbling inland waterways and marine ports?

The United States (U.S.) has more than 300 commercial marine ports, 12,000 miles of inland and intracoastal waterways and more than 566 million tons move through the inland transportation system annually. A recent report released by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) indicated that, to accommodate the anticipated growth in trade and domestic waterborne traffic, total public investment needs are expected to exceed $30 billion by 2020. This includes marine ports, dredging and inland waterways. A total of 51% of marine port systems moves through ports in Gulf coast region, 23% through ports in North Atlantic region and 12% through South Pacific Region. The $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal with the capacity to handle ships nearly a third larger the current 965 foot ‘Panamax’, had made the ports serving the canal to strive to meet the demands.

Ports at Baltimore, Charleston, Houston, Jacksonville, Miami and Savannah are scrambling at various stages of expansion to accommodate the larger vessels, the post–Panamax ships.  Norfolk and Baltimore are the east coast ports deep enough for the big ships that will cross the Panama Canal in 2015.  A journal of Environmental Health perspectives by Andrea Hricko revealed that, though Baltimore has deep harbor, its old railroad tunnel exiting the port terminals is not sufficiently tall for today’s double stacked trains to pass through. The port, its rail connections and trucking networks are all to be analyzed for discharge of goods. To facilitate this need, the CSX Railroad Company is planning to build a new intermodal rail transfer facility. The port in Savannah only recently got approval for deepening the project after facing environmental lawsuits. The federal regulations have delayed the completion of the Port of Charleston in South Carolina to 2024.

Dredging a harbor is a complex project that has to be authorized by the congress. Before a project could begin, it must undergo impact studies run by Army Corps of Engineers. The whole dredging process takes millions of dollars and consumes enormous time frame. Research reveals that, it took fifteen years of study for the final documentation of the Savannah port project to deepen from 42 feet to 48 feet. Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget reduces the corps’ civil work budget by 5.4% and cut 18% for the studies. As noted in the article released by the ‘Governing The States and Localities’ and pointed out by Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brooking Institute, ‘We’re the only industrialized country on the planet that doesn’t have a comprehensive freight strategy.’ The country also failed to meet the deadline for scanning cargo containers. Due to high costs, all the pilot programs established to scan the containers were abandoned in 2009, which led to cargo delays.

Lack of Investments in Inland Waterways and Marine Ports and its Annual Impacts on Jobs and Businesses (in billions of 2010 dollars)

Source: ACSE Report, 2012 

America’s inland waterways and marine ports are directly related to the nation’s economy. Inadequate investment in the infrastructure has greatly impacted the productivity of the U.S. economy. Delays are caused in the inland waterways system due to the insufficient operation and maintenance of the facilities. The ASCE report expounds that; a total of 90% of locks and dams on the inland waterway system experienced some type of unscheduled delay in 2009. Majority of the lock’s life are 70 years, which have far exceeded the designed life period of 50 years. America’s top ten trading partners; China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Germany, U.K, Russia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia account for more than $925 billion of total U.S. maritime trade. Research discloses that America’s trade volume is expected to double in 2020. In the next decade, exports are expected to exceed imports for the first time in generation.

U.S. Trade Balance with the World 1990 to 2009 (In Thousands US$)

Source:  U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration 

The demand for nations growing trade volume will excel the existing port infrastructure and capacity. Funding for marine port declined 15% from 2010 to 2012. The emerging global trade patterns and the trend leaning towards larger vessels will largely impact the existing ports. The recent ASCE report indicates that, with the current investment, the nation will be left with $16 billion of funding gap by 2020. Though the ports are competing and getting ready for Panama Canal expansion, it is high time we realize that the nation’s waterborne transportation system is decaying. Whether we point the finger at the public or private investments, under funding or the policies and the administration, nation’s crumbling infrastructure needs investment to compete globally.

Note: The featured image used in this article – Photo Courtesy of The Port of Virginia.

4 thoughts on “What lies ahead for the nation’s crumbling inland waterways and marine ports?

  1. It is truly sad. In Europe there are some positive ideas and ambitions especially as some of the nations whose economy still fares OK use inland waterways quite efficiently (e.g. the Rhein river is a classical example). I am currently working on a trimodal project and found interesting details. Austria for example tries to facilitate the use of riverways by promoting this mode for cargo that is transported on wheels ‘traditionally’.

  2. Not to be cynical but considering that no one wanted to pay additional taxes combined with leaving the capital gains tax @ 14%, leaving the estate tax at the $5 million exemption and only 35% above that, the NASCAR tax exemption and especially the extension of the liquor excise tax……. The government won’t be receiving another $5.1+ trillion in tax revenue. Given that ASCE has suggested that another $157 billion per year is needed between now and 2020, it is likely that our infrastructure will continue to be addressed on the “Patch and Pray” method.

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