Washington, D.C., may seem like a world away when you’re working on the inland rivers, but decisions made here often have a significant effect on life and business on the waterways.
Funding for infrastructure improvements originates here. So do laws that regulate things like navigational safety and environmental compliance.
Most people close to the industry will tell you that inland navigation is “bipartisan,” meaning policies are rarely influenced by the views of a political party. Funding a lock and dam project on the Ohio River, for example, isn’t effected by who controls the White House or Congress.
But while you’d think this would be a positive development in Washington, being bipartisan hasn’t helped the waterways cause much. Waterways projects haven’t been funded any better under either party. And neither political party has shown strong leadership over the years to elevate the importance of waterways and integrate them into national transportation policy.
In researching the April cover story for WorkBoat about the inland system, I was told by a few industry leaders that they are again disappointed by the lack of leadership on waterways issues in Washington.
While other countries aggressively invest in their ports and river infrastructure (Brazil comes to mind), the U.S. is losing competitive ground, unable to come up with a funding fix for its aging and deteriorating inland system.
The problem has many faces. Civil servant budget crunchers at agencies like the OMB regard waterways as costly boondoggles rather than national economic investments. Congress can’t make decisions because of bitter partisan rhetoric about taxes and federal spending, and the administration can’t muster leadership or an interest in the inland system. The funding reform plan favored by industry is running into roadblocks on Capitol Hill. And the public is woefully ignorant about the economic importance of inland river commerce.
There’s no immediate or easy solution, and this is not a great time to move things forward. It is a big election year, with control of the Congress and the White House at stake. That means more stalling, or “kicking the can,” as one insider told me, and less leadership on the things that matter most on the waterways.
For a broader look at challenges facing the inland industry, check out the April issue of WorkBoat, and sign up to listen to WorkBoat’s webinar on the subject on Wednesday, March 28, on workboat.com.