The shipping industry loses its role as a second-class citizen in Washington

March 24, 2022

The Olmsted Lock and Dam project on the Ohio River is finally complete, nearly 20 years behind schedule and a significant budget overrun. But its completion is a big deal because the funds can now be used for other overdue waterway projects. Photo of the Corps of Engineers

I’ve covered the workboat industry for a long time now and have many memories of writing about the difficulties the industry faced in getting its story out in Washington and across the United States, and how difficult it is to secure sufficient and consistent funding for upgrades to Congressional Locks and Dams. Inland waterways, and maritimes in general, always seem to play in the shadow of the big carriers – highways, railroads, airlines and trucks get all the attention and money.

But in the past five years or so, a remarkable and welcome change has taken place.

Funding for inland waterways has steadily increased, and the aging and crumbling infrastructure of locks and dams is now ground zero for construction cranes, deep excavations and, once completed, the mechanical marvels of peak that will ensure the long term, uninterrupted flow of goods along the country’s waterways.

Taxpayer investments have been huge because these projects are expensive, not only because they take years to complete and involve a lot of labor and construction materials, but also because they have been postponed. too long and have suffered shutdowns and restarts due to funding issues in Washington.

Consider the progression:

  • The Olmsted Lock and Dam project on the Ohio River is finally complete, nearly 20 years behind schedule and a significant budget overrun. But its completion is a big deal because the funds can now be used for other overdue waterway projects.
  • The U.S. Corps of Engineers budget for civil works projects, which includes the construction and maintenance of waterways, has steadily and steadily increased, allowing the Corps to better plan the funding and planning of these projects. of complex construction.
  • Congress just allocated $2.5 billion of the big infrastructure spending bill to inland waterway construction projects. This is a huge development that will fund five of the 15 priority projects until completion.
  • Federal grants continue to flow to develop highway-of-sea projects, many of which involve container-on-barge concepts, at several ports across the country, and for port infrastructure projects.
  • The industry has successfully fended off attempts to disrupt the Jones Act, most recently efforts to secure Jones Act waivers during the US ban on Russian energy imports.

But the progress is not limited to increased federal funding. There has also been increasing attention to addressing several other issues plaguing the shipping industry.

For the past eight years, state maritime academies have lobbied Congress for funds to replace their obsolete training ships, many of which are over 50 years old and used ships in the federal fleet. President Biden just signed into law an appropriations bill that includes $350 million to build the last of five new training ships, called the National Security Multi-mission Vessel, which could also be put into emergency service.

Within the next five years, maritime schools, which produce about 70% of the nation’s licensed professional seafarers, will finally have modern training platforms and be able to retire their old rusting buckets. It’s part of an unprecedented $1.6 billion shipbuilding program that was a “dog fight” to complete, said Richard Bolzano, former deputy administrator of the Maritimes and now CEO of Dredging Contractors of America, during from a recent Propellor Club webinar. “But we did.”

On another positive note, Congress approved funds for the first time in years to add 12 new ships to the National Reserve Fleet of commercial vessels that can be called upon in a crisis. This is significant because it would represent a 20% increase in the number of US-flagged commercial vessels that would be available for the military to charter in an emergency to supplement its sealift or to repair damaged submarine cables.

This would be done through the Tanker Safety Program, which deploys militarily useful US-flagged commercial vessels to provide fuel, and the Cable Safety Program, which can call in US-flagged cable-laying vessels to repair damaged submarine cables. About 95% of intercontinental Internet data travels over these cables, which are vulnerable to natural weather events and prone to cybersecurity risks. “These are huge victories, to achieve two programs like this in four years,” Bolzano said.

All of these developments are notable for the maritime sector, testifying to the lobbying efforts of groups such as the Waterways Council and the American Waterways Operators, among others, as well as the industry which has paid money for advocacy and made its own lobbying of the state. and federal, as well as federal officials who lobby for these programs.

But the job is not done. There will always be Jones Act challenges, budgets to approve, regulations to manage, and oversight to ensure federal funding is spent as intended and federal rules are implemented as intended. But the groundwork has been laid, and it’s quite a change from ten years ago.