You’re Not Our Huckleberry

Forbes Magazine columnist, Christopher Helman, penned an article in the magazine’s April 15, 2013 edition that essentially said the Inland Waterways should be closed for cargo transportation because taxpayers are paying too much to subsidize it. His corollary was trucks and trains can transport everything barges were carrying at less taxpayer cost. To arrive at his conclusion Helman compared government subsidies for locks and dams to government contributions for road and rail improvement in relation to industry tax payments. The barge lines apparently are not paying their fair share to use the Mississippi, Ohio and other navigable rivers. It would appear that Helman ran out of time (deadlines can be killers) or misplaced a large portion of logical and essential research. His poorly informed view is too narrow and wrong.

There are many avenues one could take to expose the fallacy of his thesis. Three, however, stand out prominently. First, taxpayers have far more invested in roads and rails. Secondly, the environmental impact of each mode of transportation must be considered. Finally, the safety of transportation operators and affected civilians is far more precarious in truck and rail than on our inland rivers.

The Eisenhower administration started the interstate highway system. Over the decades more than $450,000,000,000 in today’s dollars have been spent just to build highways, 90-95% with federal taxpayer money – the rest comes from the states. And, we’re still paving over farmland and still spending. We’re not sure where Helman got the idea that “trucks … pay their own way”. Highway creation alone far surpasses any amounts spent to create locks and dams; by comparison, about a third of that Interstate Highway funding amount was spent to create our inland waterways infrastructure.

Combining labor, materials, and land reclamation, it is a little harder to estimate the costs of America’s freight rail system, but the government, Federal and State, spent hundreds of billions to help build the U.S. rail system. Current rail does a great job, but upside capacity is too limited to pick up a significant portion of the cargo moved by barge. So either the railways have to be expanded which means government subsidies (we can pretend that this is a self-sustaining private industry, but a large expansion would require federal assistance) and land condemnation, or most of the new cargo will have to be transported via truck.

According to Helman, the truck and rail industry have a long way to go before taxpayer investment catches up with taxpayer funds used to build and maintain locks and dams. In reality, the Inland Waterway is a relatively low taxpayer investment for the benefits realized from its use; try getting drinking water for a city of 250,000 from interstate highway asphalt – or replacing hydroelectric power with wind energy tracing off the caboose of a freight train. Letting the locks and dams deteriorate will also severely impact the recreational use of our rivers (Mr. Finn would have great difficulty floating down the Mississippi). “Freight bottlenecks and other congestion cost businesses, consumers, and the public at large approximately $200 billion per year, according to a report by the Building America’s Future Educational Fund. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce places the annual cost of congestion as high as $1 trillion annually—roughly 7 percent of U.S. economic output. These costs result from higher transportation costs, more expensive everyday goods, and increased levels of pollution. What’s more, delays and backlogs in goods transport systems that are designed to move large volumes of commodities—such as freight rail and waterways—also lead to ever-increasing shares of freight being moved by truck across the nation’s highway system. The more freight is diverted to trucks, the more congested America’s roadways become. In 2010 roadway congestion alone cost American highway commuters an estimated $101 billion in lost productivity and wasted gas—a sum that doesn’t include the cost of increased wear and tear on roadways or the societal cost incurred by higher emissions levels.” CAP, August 2012.

The environmental impact of moving cargo exclusively by truck and train would be dramatic. Helman was correct when he says it takes scores of semis to carry the same cargo as one barge. One does not have to reference a learned study to recognize the adverse impact to our environment and concomitant cost to taxpayers if truck traffic is increased even 20%. Rail expansion is not as bad to the environment, but rail will not be the practical solution for carrying most of the cargo that barges were carrying. The numbers get really crazy when you consider US freight traffic is expected to increase by 50% in the next twenty-five years.

No matter what world Chris Helman thinks he lives in, this new freight is going to happen. There isn’t much additional capacity on the US freight rail system. The highways are not only overcrowded already, but the trucking industry cannot find, train and employ enough competent drivers to man even their current capacity.

The upside capacity is on the US Waterways, alone. That upside is sufficient to get us to the goal of doubling exports by 2015. That capacity is available if and when we repair and maintain long-neglected critical infrastructure. The country (GDP) and its citizens (affordable goods and services) benefit directly from the investment.

There is also a remarkable safety factor involved in a responsible assessment of current transportation modes. Injury and death incidents among waterways operators are lower than rail and much lower than truck. Even more dramatic are civilian deaths related to accidents involving commercial transportation in the US. 117:1 is a dramatic ratio. There are 117 times as many civilian deaths in trucking-related accidents as in barge-related accidents. There are 22.5 times as many civilian deaths in rail-related accidents as in barge-related accidents. If you relate those deaths to tonnage moved it’s still about 40:1 or 8:1. Is the citizen taxpayer allowed to consider this measurement? And if safety includes carbon footprint data: Barge transportation is about five times as fuel efficient as truck – and 20% better than rail, which fairly and effectively brags continuously about how “green” it is.

There are far too many opportunities to complete Mr. Helman’s sophomoric research than this small space will allow, but in summary, Helman’s colossal miss is that he doesn’t get this: “Over time, and with the development of inland population centers, waterborne freight transportation and landside transportation have become a single functional system. Problems in any part of the system—gateway ports, inland waterways, critical highway corridors, and critical rail corridors—affect the entire system. Every state is now part of the global economy through the waterborne freight system, whether it is served directly by its own ports or indirectly by trucking and rail from other states. Every state will face increasing sustainability challenges. Water is a “green” transportation resource; it can and should meet a larger share of transportation needs.” AASHTO, April 2008.

For those wishing to be better informed on this vital U.S economic and environmental issue we recommend Dr. C. Jake Haulk’s “Inland Waterways as Vital National Infrastructure” and the Center for American Progress’ “Getting America’s Freight Back on the Move” – these two (among many) provide solid research from the right and the left in support of the importance of the U.S. Waterways.

There is one thing to conclude from Helman’s shortsighted article. Christopher, you are the truck industry huckleberry!

Respectfully,
Daniel B. Altman, CEO, TPG Marine Enterprises, LLC
Edward L. Robinson, CMO, TPG Marine Enterprises, LLC

Proud advocates for the safety, responsibility and versatility of the U.S. Waterways

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