One year ago last month, the U.S. Coast Guard published its Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook, which describes its long-term vision for enabling maritime commerce and securing the maritime environment. In his introduction to this comprehensive plan, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, Commandant, observes: “Our waterways, a wealth of natural resources and marine transportation networks, remain critical to our prosperity, our security, and our identity as a Nation.”
The men and women of the American tugboat, towboat and barge industry live those words every day as they navigate our nation’s rivers, Great Lakes, harbors and coastal waters to deliver the cargo that drives our nation’s economy.
Every year, in the course of transporting over 760 million tons of commodities that power our homes, fuel our cars, enable construction of our roads and buildings, and feed our families, this industry generates over $33 billion in GDP and supports over 300,000 jobs nationwide.
And as it helps drive America’s prosperity, the tugboat, towboat and barge industry is also indispensable to our nation’s security: transporting military cargo throughout the country; performing vital ship-assist services to ensure that military and commercial ships can dock safely in our nation’s busy ports; serving as eyes and ears for the Coast Guard to help identify potential threats; and, without hesitation, assisting in rescue, evacuation, and delivery of relief supplies in times of disaster.
Through it all, barge transportation operates as the safest, most efficient, and most environmentally friendly mode of freight transportation. Barge transportation, by far, poses the lowest risk of injuries to the public compared to other freight transportation modes, and a single inland dry cargo barge can move as much cargo as 16 rail cars or 70 tractor-trailers. That means a typical 15-barge tow does the job of over 1,000 trucks, helping to alleviate gridlock on our crowded highways.
Even as the industry continues to make these vital contributions, 2019 has been an operationally challenging year, particularly for inland barge and towing vessel operators still contending with the effects of record-setting high water conditions across the Midwest and southern United States. But our companies and their mariners are no strangers to unforgiving weather and have a long history of going up against the elements, persevering, and getting the job done — a direct result of the commitment, resilience and ingenuity that define the tugboat, towboat and barge community.
As devastating as Mother Nature can be in this business, natural hazards and disasters are not the only challenges with which vessel owners and mariners must contend. Public policy challenges, though less visible to most Americans than the effects of hurricanes, deep freezes or severe flooding, are no less consequential for the ability of this industry to deliver for the American people. These challenges are substantial and must be addressed with care.
First, the Jones Act — a law with strong bipartisan support that requires that vessels transporting cargo between two U.S. ports be American-built, American-owned and American-crewed — is critical to our nation’s economic, national and homeland security, and yet remains under attack from a vocal minority seeking to overturn or weaken it. Without the Jones Act, thousands of American jobs would be lost; our military would lose an essential source of cargo transport and sealift support; our waterways would be less safe due to increased risk from the proliferation of unsafe foreign vessels and crewing practices; and the Coast Guard’s complex mission of securing our critical infrastructure from maritime threats would be made even harder by the influx of foreign vessels. Policymakers must continue to support this foundational economic and homeland security law.
Second, activist states continue to try to usurp federal authority over commercial navigation, creating a patchwork of state regulations that impedes the efficient movement of vessels across state lines. Vessels routinely travel through multiple states and mariners rely on consistent regulations to do their jobs safely and efficiently. The Constitution reserves jurisdiction over interstate commerce to the federal government, not the individual states, and the federal government must actively assert its constitutional authority to keep commerce moving on the waterways.
Third, as the result of a 15-year partnership between industry and the Coast Guard, federal “Subchapter M” towing vessel inspection regulations went into effect last year, with the goal of elevating safety across the entire industry. To ensure these regulations are successful, the Coast Guard must commit to proactive enforcement to address unsafe operators and ensure that the regulations are applied consistently from one geographic zone to the next. Both steps are critical to ensuring that the regulations achieve their promise of higher standards of safety and environmental protection with no disruption of maritime commerce.
Finally, towing vessels cannot operate safely or efficiently without the right infrastructure in place. Safe and efficient navigation requires modern, well maintained locks and dams, ports dredged to the necessary depth, and the ability to rapidly disburse funds to undertake emergency dredging on flooded rivers when needed. Congress must commit to funding waterways infrastructure needs, even in the absence of a comprehensive transportation infrastructure package.
America is a maritime nation not only because of its vast network of navigable waterways but also because of the men and women of the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, whose daily work fuels our economy and strengthens our security. We must support policies that position this vital industry to continue to thrive.
• Thomas A. Allegretti is President & CEO of The American Waterways Operators.