Barge industry hits milestones

While reporting on the state of the inland barge industry for the June issue of WorkBoat, I made a list of key developments affecting the industry over the past year and into 2015.

When you look it over, you realize that beyond the headlines of the crude boom, there are many other significant happenings that are affecting commercial navigation on the nation’s river system.

Here’s a summary of some of the highlights:

–    The first-ever federal regime to regulate the towing industry, Subchapter M, is expected to hit the streets in the form of a final rule this year, perhaps in August. Ten years in the making, the rule intends to promote safe work practices and reduce casualties on towing boats.

–    It took seven years, but Congress finally passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) in 2014 that sets a new policy direction for construction and financing of waterways infrastructure. As of early May, Congress was on its way to approving a strong level of funding for inland navigation.

–    As of Jan. 1, the nation’s tank barge fleet that carries oil in bulk is now completely double-hulled. The landmark Oil Pollution Act of 1990 law required a gradual phase-out of single-hull barges and ships by 2015. Vessel owners have made multibillion dollar investments in double-skinned tank barges and tankers as part of a larger, comprehensive federal regulatory regime to prevent oil spills like the Exxon Valdez disaster that occurred in Alaska in 1989.

–    As a way to raise money to pay for improvements to the nation’s crumbling locks and dams, Congress approved  a 9-cents-a-gallon increase in the diesel fuel tax that is paid by barge operators. The money goes into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which pays half the cost of new or modernized navigation projects along the inland system. The increase, sought by the barge industry, went into effect on April 1.

–    Congress also approved the change to the IWTF funding formula as it applies to the Olmsted Locks and Dam project on the Ohio River. The much-delayed and over budget project was draining funds from the IWTF. The formula change shifts financing more to the federal government so that IWTF funds can be available for other projects.

–    After the 2014 midterm elections, there was a large turnover of members on Congress who oversee waterways issues, causing tangible changes in the key congressional maritime committees. This has put new responsibility on the industry to educate lawmakers about the importance of inland navigation. Among the defeated waterways supporters: Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

–    The world’s first LNG-powered container ship was rolled out at NASSCO shipyard in San Diego in April. This new generation of U.S.-built vessels that burns LNG instead of diesel was commissioned by TOTE Maritime, and financed in part by federal Title XI loan guarantees. In addition, the first of six LNG-powered offshore service vessels built for Harvey Gulf International Marine was launched in February, and Conrad Shipyard is building an LNG bunker barge.

–    Ingram Barge Co. did a test run in April of a container-on-barge service on the Mississippi River from Paducah, Ky., to America’s Central Port near St. Louis. The goal was to demonstrate the viability of intermodal river transport.

Read more about inland barging in the cover story of the June issue, which will be out in the next few weeks.

About the author

Pamela Glass

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.

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