© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Myths of river transportation benefits

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 5, 2013 - Many articles have discussed the current drought and its devastating effects on the inland waterways navigation system, viewed as essential to the U.S. economy. Ignored in this discussion are the cost of this system to the taxpayer, its large environmental downsides, and the inherent vulnerability of this system to drought, flooding and infrastructure breakdown, all witnessed during the last two years.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been often criticized for poorly evaluating these factors in its project planning and particularly for inflating the benefit-to-cost ratios of their projects, underestimating environmental damages and overlooking non-structural alternatives. We believe an external evaluation of the value of the entire system is needed, and suggest that the GAO is best positioned to conduct a comprehensive study.

In lieu of that, this article intends to present the other side of the benefits (in italics) of river transport alleged by such interests as the barge industry and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Commercial navigation is an important, justifiable purpose of Missouri River management.

Barges are commonly seen on the Mississippi River but are rare on the Missouri. In 2009, the GAO found that 80 percent of tonnage moved on the Missouri consists of sand and gravel being hauled 10 miles or less, from in-channel dredge sites to nearby cement plants. Public benefit of Missouri River channel maintenance is minimal.

More than $70 billion in commodities are shipped annually on the inland waterways system. About $20 billion of it travels within the Upper Mississippi River system.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, about $91 billion worth of freight was shipped on shallow draft barges in 2007 (note: this was before the economic downturn, which may explain why the figure now used is lower), but $436 billion, nearly five times as much, was hauled by rail. As a specific example, the Association of American Railroads estimates that more than 73 million tons of corn was hauled by rail in 2011, dwarfing the volume shipped on the Upper Mississippi River by barges.

It costs less to move freight by barge than by truck or rail.

Complex accounting, preferential subsidies, regulations, tax structures etc. so complicate the picture that it is nearly impossible to determine the true cost of anything. We can only point out obvious omissions from simplistic calculations. Time, service and infrastructure all have values and costs. As for time, barges typically travel only 4 to 11 miles per hour, much slower than trains or trucks. As for service, trucks rapidly move cargo door to door, can take alternate routes in case of road problems, and are clearly preferred for short hauls. In many cases trains can also provide rapid, door-to-door service, for example they can move coal directly from mine to power plant. As for infrastructure, railroads build and maintain their own track, while trucks pay fuel taxes and fees, and the roads they use are available to all citizens. In contrast, barges use an exclusive system almost entirely built and maintained at taxpayer cost.

One 15-barge tow has the capacity of 216 rail cars and 1,050 large semi tractor trailers.

A physical comparison of barges to trucks and trains is not really useful. Because most barge freight was first hauled by trucks and trains, those land-based transporters are already embedded within the system and clearly have sufficient capacity. Besides, there is plenty of room for expansion. Development of a dedicated and separate passenger rail system – something most developed countries already have – would improve not only our passenger rail system but provide added efficiency for the freight rail system.

Barges are more fuel efficient than trains or trucks. Barges get about 616 ton-miles per gallon, compared with 478 ton-miles per gallon by trains.

It is surprising that barges don’t do better, when they cannot provide door-to-door service and move so slowly. The “fuel efficiency” calculation also neglects several important factors. Because rivers meander, a trip by barge can be 25 to 35 percent longer in miles than the same trip by road or rail. This factor alone eliminates any alleged fuel efficiency advantage of barges over trains. Also, the comparison was between barges and the average train, which carries numerous commodities and makes numerous stops. A more relevant comparison would be between barges and unit or shuttle trains, which haul a single commodity, typically grain or coal, to a distant customer. A 2008 study by Iowa State University concluded that unit trains between Iowa and New Orleans can net about 640 ton-miles per gallon, better than barges that netted 544 ton-miles per gallon. If one now factors in the extra distance of meandering rivers, the unit train is at least 50 percent more efficient than barges, and the average train is 14 percent more fuel efficient.

Barges pollute less than trucks and trains

Because barges, trains and trucks all use diesel fuel, their emissions can be estimated from their fuel usage. When realistic fuel efficiency calculations are used, unit trains emit fewer pollutants than barges or trucks. But air pollution is just part of the story. Barges damage waterways by churning up sediment, harming fish with propellers, and by collisions that release oil or chemical products into rivers, as happened near Vicksburg this January.

Benefits of the navigation system include recreation and water supply

Small vessels are threatened by huge vessels and their wakes, and they have no need of deep channels, nor for locks and dams that only impede them. Ugly, in-channel navigation structures have aggravated flooding, destroyed bar and island habitat, ruined fishing and degraded water quality. Leisure trips on the river were once pleasant and even luxurious, but now most people take their vacations elsewhere. Regarding water supply, river cities around the world have drawn water from rivers for centuries, without dams. Dams make the supply more reliable but are not essential. Any benefit would need to be calculated by comparing the conditions with and without a dam.

Bob Criss is a professor in the department of earth and planetary studies at Washington University. Brad Walker is Wetlands and Floodplain director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.