Waterways: One big happy family?

Historically, waterways interests have been aligned into different associations. However, these associations represent some interesting contrasts. For example, years ago, of the three types of carriers, one association represented exempt (unregulated for-hire) and private carriers, while another association was made up of regulated for-hire common carriers. 

While these alignments have faded, distinct geographic and commercial perspectives characterize the contrasts that exist today among different waterway interests. For example, main-stem waterways promote operations and maintenance of major lock and dams while the tributary sector promotes the “system” and the adage that the “sum of the whole is greater than the parts.” These contrasts also reflect capital investment priorities. The main-stem waterways want rehabilitation of existing infrastructure, while the tributaries seem to be pursuing deepening and/or extensions. There may not be enough funding for either, which is already leading to some interesting budgetary and political posturing. For example, there have been some recent shifts in industry leadership at the national level.

Contrasts also exist with competing carriers. The industry likes to remind us that it is composed of nearly 1,000 companies. In reality, a few very large companies virtually dominate the dry bulk and liquid sectors. In recent years, while the concentration of barge ownership has increased, profits have not.

Contrasts also reflect growth strategies. While some sectors are pursuing channel deepening, which leads to larger shipments, the direction of much of non-bulk cargo distribution is clearly toward smaller shipment sizes. Similarly, larger locks for the bulk sector don’t address the non-bulk commodity future of the waterways — smaller tows that are more agile and transit-time sensitive. 

Contrasts are not what the industry likes to present. The industry likes to be viewed as one big happy family. However, visitors to these different commercial and geographic sectors should try to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. With a looming political scramble for dwindling new construction and operations and maintenance resources, there may not be many prisoners taken, despite the appearance of a big “happy” family.

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Workboat Staff

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