Welcome to our hearing today on "The Economic Importance and Financial Challengers of Recapitalizing the Nation's Inland Waterways Transportation System."
Transportation savings are a key factor in economic growth. As fuel prices continue to escalate, waterway transportation becomes an even more viable alternative for shippers. But, an inefficient transportation system will make U.S. products uncompetitive in world markets.
The inland waterways transportation system provides freight mobility that otherwise would be costly or even impossible to address. Some products are simply too large to move by any mode other than water. Some products are too hazardous for other modes or those modes cannot charge rates high enough to make it feasible to move the product.
One our witnesses today, Dr. Larry Bray, will testify that completely diverting cargo from water to rail would require hundreds of thousands of additional railcars and an additional 2,500 locomotives. If the cargo that currently moves by waterway had to move by truck, it would require an additional 58 million truck loads moving on our already congested highways annually.
Yet, the nation's infrastructure, especially its water resources infrastructure, is falling apart faster than we can fix it.
After Hurricane Katrina, it became obvious that the warning signs were there all along, and that many experts had been telling us for years that conditions were ripe in the New Orleans area for a disaster. Today, we are getting a similar warning about the Nation's inland waterway system of transportation.
We have been investing too slowly for too long. 57% of our inland system is more than 50 years old, and 37% of the system is more than 70 years old. It is literally falling apart. Navigation outages along the system are increasing. For instance, Ohio River outages have increased from 25,000 hours in 2000 to 80,000 hours today. This trend of increasing outages is expected to continue. While it affects the reliability of the system, it also foretells the likelihood of a major physical failure at one of the structures.
At the current rate of investment, the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal lock in New Orleans, Louisiana, the southernmost navigation feature on the system, is scheduled to begin re-construction in 2029. This will mean the current lock will be over 100 years old when it is scheduled to be replaced.
In addition, because of their age, the existing locks and dams are not sized for the modern tow of 15 barges. As a result delays occur at some times of year as towboats have to break up their loads and move them through locks in two or three separate passes. Efficiencies could be found at many locations by expanding existing locks to handle larger tows.
To add to the problem, the Coast Guard inland waterway navigation program also has no plan to replace the inland and river buoy tender fleet. These cutters mark navigation channels along the inland waterways, and play a crucial role in keeping these waterways operating. Almost all have exceeded their service life and many are over sixty years old. Yet, no design or construction funding has been made available to replace these vessels and none is proposed for the next five years.
Conditions are so bad at so many places, it may be impossible to avoid a major shutdown of a few months or a few years somewhere on the system.
Finding alternative ways to move cargo will be expensive if not impossible. And if transportation costs go up, the competitiveness of American products on the world market goes down.
So addressing the infrastructure needs of the inland waterway system is not about economic benefits to a few barge companies. It is about keeping American farms and businesses competitive and growing American jobs.
Letting the inland waterway system decline further would be an economic disaster to add to the Nation's already significant fiscal problems. Movement of goods is going to increase in the future and we can expect more demands on our inland waterways transportation system. Having an inland waterways system that is a viable alternative will keep costs down among all modes of transport. If you take inland waterways out of the mix in terms of transportation options, costs go up and American products become less competitive in the global marketplace. And that means lost jobs.
That is why I can say I am a fiscal conservative, and I support investing in America where those expenditures stoke the fires of our economic engines and create jobs throughout our economy.
Sadly, other than the Inland Waterways Users Board, few realize the state of our infrastructure. And while I do not agree with all parts of their plan, at least the Users Board has delivered a recapitalization plan to the nation that calls for re-investment into the system.
For a tiny percentage of the $1 trillion failed stimulus program of 2009 or the $450 billion jobs program recently suggested by the Administration, we could spend the $8 billion necessary to recapitalize the inland system -- that is to finish the projects under construction and begin and finish the slate of authorized projects.
I think we need to make investments in inland waterway infrastructure, and other investments that will multiply jobs throughout the economy. Many of the recent suggestions that come from the Administration and elsewhere call for expenditures on projects that simply create short-term construction jobs with little or no economic benefit coming from the project being built.