When Americans hear the word “infrastructure,” our vast intermodal transportation system likely comes to mind, with roads, airports and rails a common part of many people’s daily experience. But, there is another vital component of our nation’s transportation network that is often out of sight and out of mind: the marine transportation industry. Quietly, safely, and often far from the traveling public, tugboats, towboats and barges ply our coasts, rivers, harbors and the Great Lakes, moving hundreds of millions of tons of commodities that are fundamental to the American economy and playing a critical role in our national and homeland security as well. When one considers the contributions of the tugboat, towboat and barge industry to our nation, the importance becomes clear of crafting public policies that allow it to operate efficiently.
The American Waterways Operators, through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Maritime Administration, recently released a study documenting these economic contributions. Conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the study details the number of jobs this industry supports, its impact on gross domestic product and tax revenue, commodities moved throughout the nation, and the safety, efficiency and environmental benefits of barge transportation. The numbers make a compelling case.
According to the AWO-MarAd study, the U.S. tugboat, towboat and barge industry directly provides over 50,000 jobs nationwide (including more than 38,000 crew positions on board the industry’s vessels) and directly contributes $9 billion to GDP annually. These are high-quality, family-wage jobs — all too rare in today’s economy — that provide a ladder of economic opportunity for hard-working high school graduates.
Taking into account the indirect and induced jobs that the industry supports throughout its supply chain and as a result of employee household spending, the impact grows to more than 300,000 jobs nationwide and a more than $33 billion contribution to U.S. GDP. The industry also directly collects and pays $1.2 billion in federal, state and local taxes annually, a number that expands to $5.2 billion annually when taxes derived from indirectly supported activity are included.
The study also breaks down the range and volume of commodities transported by barge annually. On average, barges transport over 760 million tons of cargo per year, including agricultural products, petroleum, coal, chemicals, aggregates and manufactured goods.
This cargo moves on our waterways safely, efficiently and sustainably. One inland dry cargo barge can transport as much dry cargo as 16 bulk rail cars or 70 tractor trailers, while one inland liquid cargo barge can transport the equivalent of 46 rail cars or 144 tanker trucks. Barge transportation is also the safest mode of transportation for the public.
Given the benefits of barge transportation to our nation’s economy, environment and quality of life, it is in our national interest that policymakers in Washington, D.C., and state capitals understand what to do, and what not to do, to keep this industry operating efficiently.
First, we need continued investment in the waterways system on which tugboats, towboats and barges operate, which means, among other things: ensuring healthy appropriations levels for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the locks and dams for which they are responsible; refraining from funding arrangements that include additional user fees on commercial vessels, which already pay a 29-cent-per-gallon fuel tax to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund; recapitalizing the U.S. Coast Guard’s inland buoy tender fleet, which maintains the aids to navigation system critical to safe vessel operations; and, as soon as practicable, facilitating Senate confirmation of an Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works to lead and manage the Corps of Engineers’ mission.
Second, we need to fix the dysfunctional regulatory system for ballast water and other vessel discharges by enacting the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA). Under the present framework, commercial vessels in interstate commerce are subject to duplicative and at times contradictory ballast water and other discharge regulations imposed by two federal agencies and 25 states, making compliance difficult and costly. VIDA will streamline this regulatory patchwork into a more effective and efficient system by consolidating regulations for ballast water and other vessel discharges under the authority of the U.S. Coast Guard, with appropriate roles for the Environmental Protection Agency and the states.
Third, we need to continue to support the Jones Act. This law — which requires that vessels transporting cargo between two American ports be American-built, American-owned, and American-crewed — is not only fundamental to maintaining an industry that supports thousands of jobs and upholds the highest standards of safety and environmental stewardship, but also ensures that our military has a stable provider of sealift capabilities, and that our homeland security personnel have a reliable partner to serve as “eyes and ears” along our nation’s shoreline and inland waterways. Without the Jones Act, these critical partnerships would be put in jeopardy.
The tugboat, towboat and barge industry is an indispensable part of our nation’s economy and security, and should therefore be integral to the national conversation about revitalizing American infrastructure. AWO looks forward to working with the Trump administration, Congress, and other stakeholders in the public and private sectors to ensure that policies affecting this vital industry are conducive to its continued success.
• Thomas A. Allegretti is President and CEO of the American Waterways Operators and Chairman of the American Maritime Partnership. The PricewaterhouseCoopers study can be viewed at https://www.americanwaterways.com/awo-pwc