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A unique component of the nation’s freight network, inland waterways are shared by only 38 states and are operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The system includes a vast network of 25,000 miles of waterways and 239 locks used for commerce. The Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway serves ports along the East Coast, such as the Port of Virginia. In the Pacific Northwest, the waterway system leads to the Port of Seattle and other ports in the area.

Delivering more than 575 million tons of cargo in 2015, valued at $229 billion, these waterways connect to inland and ocean ports, providing direct access from international markets.

Barge transport provides the most fuel-efficient way to move goods on the ground; on a single gallon of fuel, a barge can move goods four times farther than trucks. Inland waterways are vital to our nation’s agriculture industry, as 60% of grain exports are moved by barge. Similarly, in the energy sector, more than 22% of domestic petroleum and petroleum products and 20% of coal used to generate electricity are moved on the inland waterways. Barges carrying goods such as soybeans and iron travel major water channels including the Mississippi River and the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia-Snake Rivers. The system supports more than half a million jobs.

For the industries that rely on the inland waterways to move their products, this aging and unreliable system can be costly. The majority of locks and dams on the system are well beyond their 50-year design life. A lock acts as an elevator for a cargo ship, making it easier for vessels to navigate the uneven and inconsistent water levels of U.S. rivers. When a ship reaches a lock, gates open for the ship to enter the lock chamber. Once the ship is within the lock, a valve either fills or empties the lock to bring the ship level with the water on the other side of the opposite gate. The opposite gate then opens for the ship to proceed.

Coupled with increasing traffic, vessels may be delayed for hours while aging locks are shut down for maintenance and repair. Between 2000 and 2014, the average delay per lockage nearly doubled from 64 minutes to 121 minutes. Across the system, 49% of vessels experienced delays in 2014. However, delay data is not currently standardized across the system and the reason for delay is not recorded, making it hard to accurately assess delays.

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