The marine industry has long been sold on the economies of larger capacity vessels, harbors and ports. However, the rules of navigation project planning and justification are changing. Instead of using economies of scale to justify enlarging waterways, the same economies may be used to make a case for downsizing or abandoning them.
Bigger waterways are not necessarily desirable from a regional perspective particularly if a region’s broad-based constituency is not interested or is opposed to navigation improvements. The Corps currently has some big controversial projects on its plate such as the Upper Mississippi River and Delaware River.
A less visible form of opposition to waterways is emerging from the other end of the project spectrum—small harbors and rivers. Once authorized and constructed, the prevailing notion is that a waterway project will be maintained to some predetermined condition. However, there is a movement underway to re-examine the continued funding of maintenance for small projects. In some instances this would mean downsizing or possibly closing some waterways.
The Corps has very little experience in closing navigation projects except when deauthorized by Congress. Waterway “downsizing” or rightsizing of operations and maintenance expenditures at the federal level does not take into consideration the economic development impact at the local level. The Corps’ national perspective is that local jobs gained from waterway improvements are offset by non-local jobs lost in other sectors at the national level. This same zero-sum perspective will be applied to local jobs lost from possible waterway downsizing.
Local interests must be diligent and prepare to make a case for saving potentially endangered waterways. There will not be much help from the Corps. The agency has its own battles to fight.
River and harbor interests should carefully lay out the best case for continued waterway operations. If they don’t, the result may be a zero-based budget for operations and maintenance for their waterway or small harbor.