Neglecting inland waterways would hurt US economy

Neglecting inland waterways would hurt US economy

Long before the first road was built, rail line put down and runway developed, our rivers were flowing and helping to nourish our emerging country. The U.S. is fortunate to have this natural resource that continues to meet the growing demands of both our nation’s and the world’s economy.

Our inland waterways system is comprised of over 12,000 navigable miles and 240 locks that connect the heartland of America to the rest of the country and the world. However, like other modes of transportation, our river infrastructure continues to be inadequately funded. Failure or neglect in one or more modes of transportation has a ripple effect on the entire system and directly impacts our ability as a nation to remain globally competitive.

Inland waterways touch 38 of 48 contiguous states. That means local economies and families across the continental U.S. rely on the health of the system. When a lock and dam is stressed by weather, malfunctions or fails, it can tie up traffic on the river for days, weeks or even months. With many industries running on a just-in-time supply model, delays in deliveries can result in lay-offs, canceled or lost contracts and have a negative impact on families and companies up and down the supply chain.

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The inland waterways also directly impact the quality of life for many Americans. Dysfunction or failure leads to flooding, impacts to the water supply and recreation, and destruction of property. A working system means less stress on already aging water purification infrastructure and creates recreation economies.

While the national inland waterways system is large, complex and can seem daunting to address, it is important for policymakers in our nation’s capital to remember that many metropolitan, rural, state and regional economies are dependent on this infrastructure.

One issue of specific concern to all of us in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region, including Pittsburgh, is the Upper Ohio River Navigation project. According to the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ own estimates, failure to construct the $2.7 billion project could cost the region $430 million per site each year — in total an annual negative economic impact of $1.29 billion.

The Port of Pittsburgh itself handles over 27 million tons of cargo annually and locks an average of 38 million tons on the Upper Ohio River. This includes significant quantities of raw materials and resources, chemicals, aggregates and other bulk commodities which are significant drivers of the Pittsburgh region’s economy. Advanced manufacturing, energy production, and domestic steel production — all vital to our regional and national interests — would be severely impacted by a disruption in this vital transportation artery. Just one unscheduled closure at the Montgomery lock and dam in Monaca, Pennsylvania was found to cost one Pittsburgh regional company approximately $1 million per day in lost production.

This makes finding revenue sources and appropriated funds for the Upper Ohio River Navigation project and improvements so critical to our region and nation.

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The continued investment and timely completion of this project is critical for our future.

 A major failure on any upper Ohio River lock or dam effectively shuts down the entire Port of Pittsburgh region, covering 200 miles of commercially navigable water and the fourth busiest inland port in the country. A pool loss from a dam failure would not only impact our economy, but would also impact municipal and industrial intakes and recreation along our waterways. The rivers in Pittsburgh have, for more than a century, defined the region and are vital to our economy and quality of life.

Other communities along our inland marine highways face similar needs. The interior of the United States accounts for significant exports overseas. We rely on this system to move our products from the U.S. interior to global markets. Effective and efficient transportation of heartland goods and raw materials is vital to keeping the U.S. competitive globally and serves our national security interests. The Inland Waterways System must take center stage as the administration and Congress discuss a comprehensive overhaul of our national infrastructure system.

Mary Ann Bucci is the executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission. 

Matt Smith is the president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, the advocacy arm of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.