Why we must improve our infrastructure investment on our inland waterways.

Posted on 9/26/2017 by SuperUser Account

Our current “fix-as-fails” approach to the infrastructure systems of our inland locks, dams, bridges and docks is both inefficient and costly.

Our nation’s economy, health, safety, and well-being depend upon federal water infrastructure built over the past century - and that infrastructure is in dire need of repair.

A 2014 study commissioned by the National Waterways Foundation (NWF) titled, "Inland Navigation in the United States: An Evaluation of Economic Impacts and the Potential Effects of Infrastructure Investment" shed light on the importance of why significant investments are needed to ensure water resources and marine transportation infrastructure continues to meet critical national needs.

The study found: 

Investment in badly needed modernization improvements to our inland waterways’ aging lock and dam infrastructure could lead to 350,000 job-years of new, full-time employment with a present value of more than $14 billion over the 10-year period examined in the study. 

If we invest in our inland waterways and rivers, we can sustain 541,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in new job income annually.

If 21 priority navigation projects could be completed at an estimated cost of $5.8 billion total, the 20-year sum of related economic output activity would exceed $82 billion.

Although not likely in the current fiscal environment, if the completion of those projects were accelerated to 10 years, between 10,000 and 15,000 new jobs with an annual economic value of $800 million could become available. In the second decade, the completed navigation improvements could result in 10,000 new jobs throughout the economy each year with a total income of $740 million in the first year to more than $1 billion by year 20.   

New freight capacity could result in robust economic impact in the creation of some 12,000 new full-time, permanent jobs each year with annual incomes in excess of $500 million.

Midwest Foundation Dam Construction

We, as a nation, must continue to invest in the ongoing improvements to our inland waterways’ aging lock and dam infrastructure.

Those are potential outcomes if we do invest in our waterways and the positive economic impact is substantial. But what if we don't?

If commercial shipping on our waterways were to cease entirely, there would be immediate, devastating economic consequences with a total 10-year loss of $1.063 trillion, when discounted to reflect that some of the loss is still several years away.  Shipping costs would increase by $12.5 billion, which would ultimately be passed onto American consumers in the form of higher costs for goods.  

With the loss of waterways’ shipping, an estimated 75% of freight would be diverted to truck and/or rail, and there would be a 25% loss due to decreased production. Given that the capacity of just one standard river tow (15 barges) equals 1,050 trucks or 216 rail cars and six locomotives, the nation would face certain traffic gridlock. 

For more than half of Americans, there would be a 7.8% spike in the price of electricity, triple the average annual increase, if the waterways were not available to shippers.

So what can we learn and what should we do?

The quadrennial infrastructure report card of the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned an overall grade of D+ to the condition of the nation’s major infrastructure. The current “fix-as-fails” approach to legacy water infrastructure systems is both inefficient and costly, threatening our nation’s economic foundation, quality of life and global competitiveness.

While Members of Congress debate the many needs of the nation with constrained funding, (especially in light of the recent catastrophic hurricanes in Texas and Florida), our inland waterways transportation system must not be overlooked. 

Investment in water resources and marine transportation systems creates jobs now and is an investment in the future prosperity and quality of life of this nation. We need to get that story before the public to build support and with our government leaders.

Private sector investment, including public private partnerships (P3s) can serve as a tool to incentivize efficiency gains, resulting in lower lifecycle costs and earlier delivery of project benefits. However, significant impediments stymie the application of federally-led P3s towards enabling water and marine transportation infrastructure investment.

There are three primary actions that are required to foster application of federal P3s and other alternative financing and delivery tools that will enable private sector financing and innovation for federal water infrastructure projects.

1. Retention and reinvestment of available revenue streams to enable P3 projects

2. Development of federal availability payment mechanisms

3. Adaptation of current budget scoring rules to the specific risks and rewards of water infrastructure investments and preventative maintenance.


U.S. infrastructure investment requirements are expected to be $7 trillion by 2030 (again, to maintain existing infrastructure, not to build new). It is estimated that about 50% of that investment bill will be serviced outside of typical public authorities as demands on public budgets far exceed available federal funds based on current budget choices.

This story needs to be told. We must build support. Do your part and help spread the word.

Midwest Foundation provides a wide range of turnkey marine construction, design and specialty service on, over and under the water. As part of the Byrne & Jones Companies, we're proud to be a trusted advisor to the clients we serve, working on their behalf to offer the best solutions for all of their marine-related challenges - and doing it safely every step of the way. For more information, visit http://www.midwestfoundation.com